Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Nun Study, Lessons for a Healthy and Long Life.

Have you wondered why some people live a long productive life without any touch of senility? Aging gracefully is what we are all looking for. We visit our doctors yearly and undergo different tests to unmask diseases that can be treated before they kill us. In spite of this intense medical care, we fall prey to age induced diseases like Alzheimer's which is predicted to affect about 14 million Americans by 2050.

Much of what we know comes from the Nun Study, conducted at the convent of the School Sisters of Notre Dame on Good Counsel Hill in Mankato, Minnesota on 75 to 107 year-old Catholic sisters. The study on Alzheimer's disease and ageing has given us some insights into ageing and dementia. The following are some of the helpful highlights of the study:

Linguistic performance in early life appeared to help prevent Alzheimer's disease. The greater the "idea density" in early life, the lower the incidence of Alzheimer' disease. Though the brain is physically destroyed by Alzheimer's changes, the people with high idea density maintained the capacity to keep their brains functioning in spite of the loss of the brain tissue.

Exercising the brain helped. Those Catholic sisters who have taught all their lives (most of them have Master's degrees) showed moderate decline than those who have spent their lives in service based tasks. Exercising the brain stimulates new neurons concomitant with the new stimulant. The more we stimulate the brain, the more neurons we produce.

The nuns do not drink, neither do they smoke. They live quietly and communally (and hence have social support).

The Sisters have positive attitudes to life. The positive emotions that come from spirituality is a boost to the Sisters' mental health. They are all loving, happy and hopeful and show gratitude.

Among the nuns with physical evidence of Alzheimer in the brain, physical evidence of stroke invariably showed outward symptoms of dementia while only half of the nuns without stroke had outward symptoms of dementia. Hence Alzheimer has a cardiovascular component.

"If your brain is already progressing toward Alzheimer's," says Snowdon, "strokes or head trauma which can produce similar kinds of brain damage can put you over the edge." His advice: wear a helmet while biking, motorcycling or playing contact sports; buckle your seat belt; and drive a car with air bags. Meanwhile, keep strokes at bay by keeping your cardiovascular system in shape: avoid tobacco, get regular exercise and eat a balanced, healthy diet.

Those nuns with high folate levels in their blood have little evidence of Alzheimer type brain damage after death. Folate reduces the level of homocysteine, a crystal-like substance that damages the lining of the blood vessels. Hence adequate folate levels may decrease stroke and hence protect the brain cells from damage.

Those nuns who live longer without signs of Alzheimer "think no evil, do no evil and hear no evil."

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