The Nun Study of Aging and Alzheimer's Disease is a continuing longitudinal study, begun in 1986, to examine the onset of Alzheimer's Disease. David Snowdon, the founding Nun Study investigator, originally began his research at the University of Minnesota, but moved it to the University of Kentucky in 1986. In 2008, with Dr. Snowdon's retirement from the University of Kentucky the study returned to the University of Minnesota. Similar environmental influences and general lifestyles make the nuns an ideal population to study, and although it is ongoing it has yielded several findings. In 1992, researchers at the Rush University Medical Center Alzheimer's Disease Center (RADC), building on the success of the Nun Study, proposed the Rush Religious Orders Study. The Religious Orders Study was funded by the National Institute on Aging in 1993, and is ongoing.
The Nun Study, begun (officially) in 1986 with funding by the National Institute on Aging, focuses on a group of 678 American Roman Catholic sisters who are members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Studying a relatively homogeneous group (no drug use, little or no alcohol, similar housing and reproductive histories, etc.) minimizes the extraneous variables that may confound other similar research.
Researchers have also accessed the convent archive to review documents amassed throughout the lives of the nuns in the study. Among the documents reviewed were autobiographical essays that had been written by the nuns upon joining the Sisterhood; upon review, it was found that an essay's lack of linguistic density (e.g., complexity, vivacity, fluency) functioned as a significant predictor of its author's risk for developing Alzheimer's disease in old age. Crucial to note, with respect to this finding, is that the approximate mean age of the nuns at the time of writing was merely 22 years. Roughly 80% of nuns whose writing was measured as lacking in linguistic density went on to develop Alzheimer's disease in old age; meanwhile, of those whose writing was not lacking, only 10% later developed the disease.
Overall, findings of the Nun Study suggest "that traits in early, mid, and late life have strong relationships with the risk of Alzheimer's disease, as well as the mental and cognitive disabilities of old age."
- Overview and Findings from the Religious Orders Study, Curr Alzheimer Res. 2012 July 1:9(6): 628-645.
- Riley KP, Snowdon DA, Desrosiers MF, Markesbery WR: Early life linguistic ability, late life cognitive function, and neuropathology: Findings from the Nun Study Neurobiology of Aging 26(3):341347, 2005.
- The University of Minnesota's Nun Study FAQ page, 18 Dec 2009, http://www.healthstudies.umn.edu/nunstudy/faq.jsp.
- Official Nun Study homepage
- Nun study video: video 1
- "Nuns Offer Clues to Alzheimer's and Aging" by Pam Belluck for New York Times, 2001: Article contains, among other things, quotes from the nuns' autobiographical essays which may help to elucidate what is meant above by a "lack of linguistic density."
- "Landmark Study Links Cognitive Ability of Youth With Alzheimer's Disease Risk Later in Life" National Institute on Aging, entry on Nun Study, 1996
- Agatha Christie And Nuns Tell A Tale Of Alzheimer's, on NPR