The Nun Study Print E-mail

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In 1986 Dr. David Snowdon, an epidemiologist and professor in Neurology, embarked on a revolutionary scientific study involving 678 spirited Catholic nuns; the School Sisters of Notre Dame. An ongoing project, the Nun Study has come to represent some of the world's most significant research on ageing and Alzheimer's disease. The participants, ranging in age from 75 to 106, have allowed Dr. Snowdon access to their medical and personal records; and these bright, articulate and altruistic women have each further agreed to donate their brains to the study upon their deaths. In this editorial, we share a few of the most exciting findings gained through the study bringing promising news that will empower and enrich the lives of our senior citizens, people with Alzheimer's, their families and carers. The study's findings are bound to influence the way we think about Alzheimer's; its causes; and what can be done.

Remarkable findings

One of the primary questions the Nun Study attempts to answer is how pathology in the human brain relates to the expression of Alzheimer's symptoms. Today, it is known that plaques and tangles are the two most important pathological features of Alzheimer's disease. However, some stunning results from the Nun Study show that Alzheimer's is not a yes/no disease. Rather, it is a process... one that evolves over decades and through interacting with many other factors.

The study shows quite dramatically how pathology alone can often mislead. For example, approximately one third of the sisters whose brains were found to be riddled with Alzheimer's plagues and tangles at autopsy had shown no symptoms and scored normal results in all mental and physical tests while alive! Though the opposite result was true in other cases; such contradictory results show that there is much more to Alzheimer's than neurological changes in the brain alone.

Diagnosing Alzheimer's

It is increasingly clear from this study that many different factors influence our amazing brain and to thoroughly diagnose Alzheimer's is an incredibly complex undertaking; one that requires a combination of neurological tests, blood tests, brain scans and a comprehensive battery of psychological tests.

Diagnoses made without sufficient evidence can often lead to misdiagnoses and unnecessary suffering. Therefore, if there is any doubt, it is imperative that a reliable second opinion be obtained.

Interestingly, the Nun Study further reveals that more disabled sisters are particularly sensitive to the emotional tone of voice of the person carrying out the testing. This influence on results makes it crucial that anyone conducting Alzheimer's and dementia testing needs to emphasise the positive, and compliment the participant for his or her achievements.

The fascinating results revealed through the study to date are documented in David Snowdon's book Aging with Grace, where you will find one of the most precise, yet very simple and descriptive, definitions of plaques and tangles we have come across.

Further Reading

  • The Nun Study - Members Article - Jane Verity (Read the full article to learn further details of Dr. David Snowdon's amazing findings including an important link between Alzheimer's disease, stroke and diet; learn how nutrition can help us live longer, healthier lives without Alzheimer's; plus discover some critical factors and interesting influences associated with Alzheimer's.)
  • How to Help People with Dementia Improve - Precis/Members article - Jane Verity (Learn the first step to assisting a person with dementia to improve; how our focus determines the experience; discover how beliefs are maintained; learn how our brain operates a clever filtering system plus more on NLP.)
  • Stages and Symptoms - Article - (Read of the 4 stages of dementia, and why they should only ever serve as guides; read examples of how people with dementia compensate for missing memories, their wonderful language, and the meanings behind certain gestures and body language.)
  • 3 Powerful Myths about Dementia - Precis/Members article - (We dispel 3 powerful and harmful myths about dementia. 1. People with dementia become like children - discover the one thing people with dementia and children do have in common; learn how we react to a behaviour is how others will interpret that behaviour; how our attitudes and actions can help people with dementia be valued and accepted. 2. People with dementia don't know what they like, need or want - including helpful tips to find out what they do like/need and want. 3. People with dementia can't learn new things; plus learn the 5 points critical to storing long term memories.)
  • How can Aromatherapy Help People with Dementia? - Members short article - E. Joy Bowles BSc. (Joy's article reveals how the ‘sense of smell is non-verbal and can get through" to emotions when words fail'; the use of smells can help orient people with dementia to time and space; tips for choosing and using the right oils to lessen anxiety, agitation and depression.)
  • Brahmi - The Traditional Ayurvedic Brain Tonic - Members short article - Dr Ruth Cilento - (world-renowned holistic medical practitioner and author of Heal Cancer and Age without Alzheimer's shares how Brahmi improves learning processes and memory; how it works; who can benefit; why brahmi is particularly therapeutic for the elderly, plus more on its health benefits.)
  • Gingko Biloba - Members short article - Dr Ruth Cilento - (world-renowned holistic medical practitioner and author of Heal Cancer and Age without Alzheimer's explains the many healing properties of Gingko Biloba; its positive effects on memory and learning abilities and for arresting symptoms of dementia.)
  • The Garbage Run Miracle - Members story - Colin's amazing real-life story of improvement.
  • The Garbage Run Miracle Continued - Members story - Colin's incredible improvement continues.


Relevant Resources:

Age Without Alzheimer's Book Two - Book - Dr. Ruth Cilento MB, BS, DBM, DAc, FACNEM Dr. Ruth Cilento. 2003 Australia - Visit our online store

Aging with Grace - The Nun Study - Book - David Snowdon Ph. D., Bantam Books 2001 USA. (Not availbale from Dementia Care Australia) Click here to visit



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