Aging with Grace

Summer 2002 CSANews Issue 43  |  Posted date : Apr 06, 2007.Back to list

Aging with Grace is a unique book on many levels. It reveals ground-breaking, hard science research into Alzheimer's disease, the ultimate drawback to "aging with grace." Epidemiologist David Snowden also takes us behind convent walls, to lovingly share the lives of 678 nuns, members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. These sisters are subjects of a research project which reporters dubbed The Nun Study, and which was given avid publicity in the early 90s. It was featured on everything from Life Magazine to Ted Koppell and The Phil Donahue Show.

Dr. Snowden embarked on this study in 1986 but, as he gained the trust of the sisters, he was given unprecedented access to the meticulous records kept by the Notre Dame Order. These old files, kept in an obscure vault, made it possible for Snowden and his colleagues to read and study autobiographies written at the turn of the last century.

As the author describes it, "For an epidemiologist, this sort of find is equivalent to an archaeologist's discovering an undisturbed tomb, or a paleontologist unearthing a perfectly preserved skeleton." For the reader, the journal entries shared in this book are fascinating stories in themselves.

These "brides of Christ," with their vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, are ideal subjects for epidemiologists. They range in age from 75 to 106. Notre Dame is a teaching order, so they are educated, have similar jobs, diet and medical care. They are also celibate and do not smoke, so the scientific challenge is to find out why some of them age successfully into their 100s, while others appear to become totally disconnected from the world around them, tragically forgetting their closest friends and relatives.

Alzheimer's is unique in that a diagnosis cannot be definitely confirmed until the brain autopsy has been conducted after death. Initially it seemed repellant but, for the sake of science, Dr. Snowden and his fellow researchers decided to make brain donations mandatory for all participants in The Nun Study. This was not an easy decision emotionally!

To their surprise, most of the nuns agreed readily. To quote Sister Rita, "As sisters, we made the hard choice not to have children. Through brain donations, we can help unravel the mysteries of Alzheimer's disease and give the gift of life in a new way to future generations." Others were more irreverent. Sister Loran told reporters, "We joke

about these Notre Dame nuns, running around heaven without their brains."

Relatives and prospective donors, though, will be comforted to read how these precious UPS parcels are received by the scientists with gratitude. Students are constantly reminded, "Remember, somebody died...each brain represents a rich, vibrant life, and each brain offers a unique legacy to those who probe its mysteries."

In Aging with Grace, Dr. Snowden offers practical suggestions for avoiding dementia. Dietary suggestions range from the proven value of folic acid (found in cooked tomatoes) to the possible benefits of Vitamins E and C supplements and the anti-inflammatory drug Celebrex. Throughout the book, he emphasizes the importance of daily exercise, constant and continual intellectual stimulus and, above all, maintaining a positive outlook on life.

Snowden encourages parents to read to their children. Research indicates that high linguistic ability in early life seems to protect against Alzheimer's.

In Alzheimer's, there are many victims besides the patient. Snowden has sympathetic concern for the families and caregivers who are struggling to cope with the relentless deterioration of their loved ones. He suggests that we speak slowly, and refrain from quizzing the patients with questions they can't answer. Above all, never stop trying to communicate. There's pathos in the observation of one Alzheimer's patient, "I don't talk because no one listens anymore."

Genetic research into the role heredity plays in Alzheimer's is progressing rapidly, but Snowden makes the observation that, "genetic information is a double-edged sword." The potential for genetic discrimination is huge. Just consider insurance and employment!

For baby boomers who have enjoyed the lifelong benefits of pasteurization, vaccine, antibiotics and improved nutrition, this Nun Study offers an encouraging message of hope. Although the incidence of Alzheimer's appears to increase with age, it does hit a plateau and then declines. This has real significance for future seniors.

Perhaps in years to come, there will be a whole generation of centenarians, enjoying healthier, more functional lives and Aging with Grace.