There is such a thing as aging with dignity, and the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) in Mankato, Minnesota are living examples. The average age of the nuns is 85, and there are quite a few older than that and going strong. What’s even more exceptional than their age is the fact that there is no Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or other brain debilitating diseases that seem to affect the general population.

Sister Nicolette on her 101st birthday

David Snowdon, a neurologist, has been studying the nun’s at the convent since 1992, and is the director of “The Nun’s Study” on aging and Alzheimer’s Disease. He has found, from getting to know these exceptional women, that keeping the brain busy just may be the way to keep the devil (in this case being Alzheimer’s and dementia) away. Keeping your brain busy seems to keep the devil (Alzheimer’s and dementia) away, Could it be that simply occupying your mind can extend your life and ward off the evil spirits that take over older minds?

Snowdon followed a study conducted at the University of Kentucky, where Drs. David Wekstein and William Markesbery at the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging were researching age-associated changes in cognitive function in a group of older adults who had agreed to donate their brains after death. The focus of the study was to understand how the brain was changed when presented with Alzheimer’s and other neurological disorders as the subjects got older. At the time Snowdown was working at the University of Minnesota and his research led him to the sisters there.

According to Snowdon, religious groups make excellent study subjects because they keep extensive records, often have similar lifestyles (and in the case of the convent eat the same foods and have similar interests and hobbies). Nuns do not smoke, are celibate,  have similar jobs and income, and receive similar health care for most of their lives. This eliminates a lot of weeding through data that could cloud the results, such as poverty and lack of health care. Outside a laboratory, it would be hard to find as pure an environment for research.

In the Nun Study, 678 U.S. members of the SSND participated. ISnowdon began administering annual memory and cognitive tests to the nuns ranging in age from 75 to 102 in 1992. This year 61 surviving members completed their exams. Three hundred of the nuns who have passed on donated their brains to science research after their death.

Brain exercises are a normal way of life at the convent, and the sisters are quite competitive. They enjoy games, such as Triple Yahtzee, bridge, dominoes, Boggle and cribbage. They spend their time writing in journals, composing letters to Congress, doing puzzles and brain games of all sorts, and participate in current events seminars each week. They practice two key elements of brain exercise and memory retention – keeping your brain active and socialization.

A study of the brains of the nuns who have passed on has helped the researchers to understand that Alzheimer’s disease may possibly be “due to tiny unnoticed strokes.”  They then conclude that Alzheimer’s may be stopped by preventing what causes the unnoticed strokes in the first place.

Snowdon’s book on the Nun study, Aging with Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives, won a Christopher Award in 2002.





Wikipedia – David Snowdon:

Attainment’s Mental Fitness Cards – Learning from the Nun’s Study

University of Minnesota – The Nun’s Study: