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The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Contents Page
The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking

Nuns’ Sense

Nuns by Flickr User Kevin Dooley

Nuns by Flickr User Kevin Dooley

The Inquisition apologises profusely for the terrible pun in the title of this piece, but while the head asked the fingers to stop typing they flatly refused.

University of Minnesota’s Nun Study of Alzheimer’s

The School Sisters of Notre Dame were chosen in 1986 for a health survey due the long lives of their members. As an order involved in education their members are also informed and literate, making them ideal candidates for testing cognitive degeneration.

They were furthermore the ideal study group due to their consistent lifestyles including their diets, schedules, work and beliefs. What are known scientifically as “variables” but vices to the rest of us are relatively unheard of in convent life – smoking, boozing and sex. This would help pinpoint differences in those who went on to develop health issues, in particular Alzheimer’s which was the study focus. Just over 600 candidates were originally inducted to the study, with only 52 alive at the beginning of 2009.

What did the nun’s think?

As Physorg reported, one nun when asked her feelings on the study was delighted to be able to leave something behind for posterity. “This allows me an opportunity to teach even after I die,” she commented.

Survey carried out by

The study was carried out by a rotating team of researchers initially led by Dr. David Snowdon, an american epidemiologist, who formed a close bond with the sisters, keeping the study going even after he left the University of Minnesota to go to the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging in the University of Kentucky Medical Center. This intimacy enabled him to more thoroughly interpret the findings, understand minor changes in the subjects and become more deeply involved on a personal level which was key in the relational nature of the study. A major concern for the nuns’ was alleviated in this way – the worry that they might be exposing their personal lives to the world. On his retirement Dr. Snowdon appointed Dr. Kelvin Lim to bring the study to a close. Dr. Snowdon also began to editorialise his findings as the basis for a book, Aging With Grace (Amazon link below).

Image courtesy of Flickr User Brain Blogger

Image courtesy of Flickr User Brain Blogger


The nuns were annually given mental and physical tests. The physical aspects tested included general motor skills, coordination, balance and dexterity. The mental tests were less popular among the subjects and involved replicating complex images by drawing or interpreting long passages of prose. The prose is an aural exam which tests both creative interpretation and memory.

The depth of research into the lives of the women was exhaustive including baptismal certificates, autobiographical essays, family photos and sophisticated, detailed medical testing. Actual brains were even kept for analysis, and in some cases, dissection. These dissected brains have had their tissue scanned and available globally for review by medical research teams.


The study’s general aim at the outset was to gain greater insight into the effects of aging with a particular emphasis on Alzheimer’s. This was mainly in regard to susceptibility but also to play a role in working toward possible prevention and cure.

Results and Implications

The Inquisition is hesitant to discuss the findings to any great depth. It must be stressed that although the study was expansive, it was but one of many and the Inquisition’s place is merely to inform and not offer false hope or erroneous directions. In a recent statement the U.S. National Institutes of Health urge people not to have false hope without reason; Alzheimer’s and its causes are still largely a mystery. Many causes have been put forward through the years even down to environmental factors such as aluminium drinks cans.

With that in mind, the key findings included the fact that those with well-developed language and communications skills early in life appeared less likely to suffer from dementia later on. While a number of the test subjects lived beyond 100 some appeared to be unaffected by dementia symptoms remaining fully switched on socially and intellectually. Although it never gained a foothold in their conscious minds, their dissected brains showed the changes commonly associated with Alzheimer’s. Conversely, the prose writing components of the testing showed that those with more literal and less creative texts were 80% more likely to succumb to the degenerative illness.

Those with optimistic outlooks also lived longer. After a rigorous scientific test these conclusions may seem to many quite subjective and ultimately unquantifiable. The study also established a link between vascular incidents like strokes and the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Almost half the nuns had developed dementia to some extent before their deaths. Of these, 12 showed no signs when living. Relatively speaking these figures are bourne out within the wider population.

But the advice in general is that susceptibility to Alzheimers is a bit of a lottery.

Alois Alzheimer, the man for whom is named the disease

Alois Alzheimer, the man for whom is named the disease

What is Alzheimers?

Alzheimers, or senile dementia, is a non-contagious disorder of the brain which affects 10% of those aged over 65 and 50% of those aged over 85. Every case is individual but it most often affects cognitive ability, memory, and with further degeneration may impair motor ability. The extent of these effects vary widely from barely noticeable to practical incapacitation. However, it is incurable and degenerative eventually, in the absence of other factors, leading to death.

Common symptoms include the inability to form new memories and the loss of older memories, confusion, irritability and difficulty in communication. The onset is generally mild and consequently confused with other factors such as stress or age.

There is much debate and little concrete resolution on the causes of the sickness. Although medication is available to relieve symptoms, none has been proven at the time of writing to delay or stop the progression. It has been seen that Alzheimer’s is accompanied by changes in the cranial environment, with protein growth and entanglement among neurons.

Please Note

Alzheimer’s is a vast disease with no single diagnosis or solution, if you wish to find out more about dementia and Alzheimer’s please use this link – Alzheimers Ireland.

Thank You

Medical topics carry great responsibility for accuracy along with equally great potential for disinformation. Thank you to Ciara Savage for looking over this and taking out the dodgy bits.


The image midway through this piece is Charles Bell’s drawing, Anatomy of the Brain dating from 1802.

Aging with Grace by David Snowdon recounts the study and considers its wider implications
Physorg recounts the end of the study
Business Week discusses the implications of the study, amongst others
The Hong Kong Standard’s lengthy recounting of the study
HealthMad on the link between language and the disease
America – the US national Catholic newspaper

This article was posted by on Thursday, September 30th, 2010 at 21:42.
It is archived in America, Health, Religion, Science and tagged , , , , , , , .

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