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by William H. Benson

August 6, 2009

     “Alzheimer’s disease is the number one neurological disorder in the United States today,” said Jeanette Worden, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt. One in eight people over the age of 65 show symptoms of the disease, and for those over 85, it approaches one in two.

     In 1906, Alois Alzheimer, a German doctor and medical researcher, gave a lecture in which he described a woman named Auguste D. who showed an “unusual disease of the cerebral cortex.” When just 51, Auguste began to suffer from memory loss and faulty judgment, and then she died at the premature age of 55. Dr. Alzheimer was surprised when the autopsy revealed that her cortex was thin, and that there were deposits of plaque and neurofibrillary tangles deposited within her brain, typical of people much older.

     Alzheimer’s disease is characterized primarily by the loss of neurons in the brain, especially in the neocortical region, that area associated with higher functioning thinking and emotional processing tasks. Victims of the disease can walk, talk, eat, and function normally, but what is missing is the human thinking apparatus. This loss contributes to behavioral changes that are quite sharp and that profoundly affect their family members.

     Dr. Worden says that “there is no direct cause, and no known cure, and that it can be only diagnosed by an autopsy.”

     Researchers have identified though certain factors that increase a person’s risk: age, a severe head injury, inheriting the E4/E4 alleles for apolipoprotein E, a high fat diet, elevated cholesterol levels, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, smoking, low blood levels of folic acid, and high levels of homocysteine.

     We have no control over some of the risk factors, such as our age or the alleles we inherit, but several factors we can control. In fact, Professor Worden commented that the same risk factors for heart disease and stroke are the same as those for Alzheimer’s, that they overlap. A researcher said, “Anything that increases your chances of developing a stroke or a heart attack also increases your chances of developing Alzheimer’s.”

     The factors that decrease a person’s risk include: a low-fat diet, including omega-3 fats in the diet, such as found in cold water fish; maintaining a healthy weight; exercise; drinking fruit and vegetable juices; and continually finding mental challenges.

     These factors were, in part, determined from a research project undertaken by David Snowden, a neuroscientist at the University of Kentucky. In 1986, he approached a convent of nuns, the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato, Minnesota, and eventually 678 members agreed to allow Snowden to observe their lifestyles. The nuns further surprised Snowden when they agreed to donate their brains upon their passing.

     Religious groups are excellent for studying because of the members’ similarities, allowing a researcher to focus upon their minute differences. Snowden understood that the School Sisters were noted for their longevity and a low incidence of Alzheimer’s.

     Snowden continues his study today, and has written a delightful book—Aging With Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives. Of the 678 nuns, there are now 61 survivors, but some lived well beyond 100. They led low-stress lives, they had many friends with whom they shared similar ideas, they ate small portions of a low-fat diet rich in fruits and vegetables, they did Yoga daily, and they exercised often every week.

     But above all else, they kept themselves mentally challenged, learning foreign languages, reading philosophy, engaging in stimulating conversations, and writing to their Congressmen. By his nun study, Snowden concluded that normal aging does not have to be associated with major cognitive decline, but is often related to lifestyle.

     One of Snowden’s fascinating insights came from the nuns’ journals, which they had begun in their teens when they first entered the convent. Snowden read their journals and concluded that those nuns who displayed greater skill with written language—a complexity of ideas and emotional content—at an early age “were significantly less likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s,” than those who displayed a deficiency.

     Dr. Worden suggests certain healthier habits. Avoid the sedentary lifestyle. Exercise everyday. Learn new things. Keep friendships strong and make new friends. Reduce stress. Eat smaller portions of a low-fat diet. Keep love strong, and laugh often.