Dr. Karen Santa Cruz of the University of Minnesota examines one of the 670 brains in the Nun’s Study, looking for signs of dementia. The brain pictured here is more than 75 years old and still looks healthy says Dr. Santa Cruz. (photo: Lorna Benson/MPR News)

The nuns of the School Sisters of Notre Dame made headlines in Time magazine a decade ago for making an unexpectedly profound contribution to how we understand Alzheimer’s disease.

Looking for a research project, David Snowdon became interested in the convent after a graduate student, a former nun, told the young epidemiologist about a retired community of nuns living out their days in Mankato, Minnesota. These women turned out to be ideal for research into aging because of their similarities in lifestyle. Snowdon didn’t know exactly what he was going to find among these nuns, but struck gold when finding their personal records in an old olive green file cabinet. The biographical essays they wrote as young women in their early 20s held clues to the way they aged over 50 years later.

What Snowdon found was a correlation between low grammatical complexity in their writing and low “idea density” among sisters who had Alzheimer’s disease. An example of a low-scoring sample:

“My father, Mr. L.M. Hallacher, was born in the city of Ross, County Cork, Ireland, and is now a sheet-metal worker in Eau Claire.”

On the other hand, a high-scoring essay looks more complex:

“My father is an all-around man of trades, but his principal occupation is carpentry, which trade he had already begun before his marriage with my mother.”

These high-scoring writers avoided dementia in their later years and performed better on other cognitive tests. Later, Dr. Snowdon pursuaded the nuns to donate their brains to science. Among the participating nuns who died, none of the high-density ideas nuns’ brains showed evidence of Alzheimer’s disease, while it was physically present in all of those with low idea density.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota now carry this research forward, trying to figure out why some of the nuns’ brains look diseased post-mortem, but before death, these women managed to live out their final days without dementia.

Another researcher in Canada has recently discovered that bilingual speakers can also stave off Alzheimer’s by a few years more than monolingual speakers.

Could there be a protective quality to maintaining your linguistic skills? Or is it that these nuns have always had a bit extra reserve of cognitive ability to weather the ravages of aging? Thankfully, this research provides more insights into questions like these as this massive longitudinal study involving over 600 nuns continues.


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10Reflections

Reflections

Idea density. Sounds like a nice way to describe what I call my high level functioning ADD condition! Next time I lose my keys because I am doing three things at once and thinking about 4 more, I will remind myself that it reflects brain health!

Check out the "Vanishing Words" episode of Radiolab (May 5, 2010, http://www.radiolab.org/blogs/... for an interesting discussion of this study. Sister Alberta Sheridan, one of the participants, reads her decades old essay. The piece also includes an exploration of the idea density phenomenon related to the work of Agatha Christie.

Studies have also shown that people with brain damage from various sources can "retrain" their brain by challenging it to learn new things, and that the very process of learning new things somehow triggers the recall of lost abilities.  I can attest to this, as I suffered severe cognitive disruption (along with other neurological and physical deficits) as a result of a prolonged battle with untreated Lyme disease, which I had for 16 years before being diagnosed and treated. I'd become bedridden and isolated, unable to interact with more than one person at a time, and then only for brief periods. An outing took special planning.

When I was finally correctly diagnosed, and began aggressive treatment,  I had to learn to walk and to read again.  My short term memory was very poor and entire chunks of my past were inaccessible to me.  I began with simple memory exercises, and then to more complex ones, and gradually my brain reforged neuronal connections to reclaim what I thought I'd lost.  Eventually, I went back to work part-time as a field scientist in an area different from the one I'd been in, a pure joy in learning and thinking and analyzing.  I picked up the art I'd left behind as a young mother, and learned fused glass, something I'd never done before, then returned to painting.  Now retired, I recently took up weaving and am about to learn to spin, for the pure pleasure of learning and because I love doing things with my hands.  I volunteer in my community as advocate for others with Lyme disease, and as a volunteer driver for people needing transportation. 

My first language is English, and during my illness, I lost two other languages I was fairly competant in, Spanish and French. I am now relearning Spanish, and am thinking of starting another language (maybe Sanscrit) to truly challenge my brain.  We lose what we have (or sometimes don't regain it after an event that disrupts brain functioning) because we don't use it.  As children, we work very hard to learn.  Then it is assumed that we are done, and our brains begin to atrophy.  Having already been in that dim world where my brain struggled to stay in touch, I rejoice that I was finally diagnosed and treated and that I have had the opportunity to regain the use of my brain through its natural ability to heal and recreate neuronal connections. 

Reading this made me think of hearing, a few years back, about Iris Murdoch's diminishing vocabulary in her later work--which has been seen as an early sign of the Alzheimer's she was ultimately diagnosed with.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/new...
Surely, Ms. Murdoch would have been a high density linguist?

I wonder if or what the differences would be for those who sang or played an instrument as opposed to non-musicians?

Well, I had no doubt about all that.  Use it or lose it.... knowledge, ideas, challenges all tax the brain which I think of as a muscle.  If you exercise you also maintain your stability into old age as well so.... there you are, something to do as the days pass along.

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terrific advice. Thanks to you for the useful talk. I really like the points spoken of.

Well,Susan! What a great article and commentaries/photos and insights to help us all keep researching ways to understand how we can enhance our brain-function even when getting over age seventy plus plus..and share to others;many thanks.Its a joy for me to follow up this study.

This research is extremely important for the future of brain health and goes hand in hand with the first high-resolution 3D digital model of the human brain, which they have called "Big Brain".

The reconstruction shows the brain's anatomy in microscopic detail, enabling researchers to see features smaller than a strand of hair.

It will be made freely available to neuroscientists to help them in their neuroscience research.

They will be able to study the individual layers of the brain's cortex to the very cells themselves.

The research team had to slice 7,400 sections from the Alpha Brain Review of a deceased 65-year-old woman, each half the thickness of a human hair.

The team then had to stain each slice to bring out the anatomical detail and scan them into the computer in high definition.

The final step was to reassemble the scanned slices inside the computer.