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The Nun Study

Dr. DavId A. Snowdon Sanders-Brown Center on Aging University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center.

ter on Aging is internationally rec- 103 years old when the study beognized for its research on the neu- gan, and the average age of the The Nun Study is a longitudinal ropathology of Alzheimers disease. participants was 85 years. Over 85 study of aging and Alzheimers dispercent of these participants were ease. It began in 1986 as a pilot teachers. Participants in the Nun study on aging and disability using Study include women representing data collected from the older School a wide range of function and health, Sisters of Notre Dame living in from sisters in their 90s who are Mankato, Minn. In 1990, the Nun highly functional with full-time jobs Study was expanded to include to sisters in their 70s who are seolder Notre Dames living in the verely disabled, unable to commumidwestern, eastern, and southern nicate, and bed-bound. regions of the United States. The goal of the Nun Study is to determine the causes and prevention of What are the participants Alzheimers disease, other brain required to do? diseases, and the mental and physi- How long will the study cal disability associated with old continue? Each of the 678 participants in the age. Nun Study agreed to participate in The Nun Study is an ongoing, one- annual assessments of their cogniof-a-kind resource for the study of tive and physical function, medical How is the study funded? brain diseases in the elderly. We exams, blood drawing for genetic expect that data, tissue, and genetic and nutritional studies, and brain doThe Nun Study is funded by the material collected in this study will nation at death for neuropathologic National Institute on Aging (one of be used by scientists for decades studies. The Nun Study represents the institutes within the National In- into the future. the largest brain donor population stitutes on Health). More than $2 in the world. In addition, the sisters million in federal tax dollars have have given investigators full access been invested so far in this study. What are the research to their convent and medical In addition, private foundations in- questions? records. cluding the Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation The primary research question in in San Antonio, Texas, have given the Nun Study is What factors in What gems are buried significant financial support to this early, mid, and late life increase the in the convent archives? endeavor. risk of Alzheimers disease and other brain diseases such as The convent archives are particustroke? Other research questions larly useful in our study of When did the study begin? relate to the determinants of longev- Alzheimers disease because they ity and the quality of life in the eld- contain accurate risk factor data David Snowdon, Ph.D., and his col- erly. spanning the entire lifespan of the leagues at the University of Minn participants. Accurate information began a pilot study in 1986 using on early and mid-life risk factors is data collected from School Sisters Who participates difficult or impossible to obtain in of Notre Dame living in Mankato, in the study? most other studies on Alzheimers Minn. When Dr. Snowdon joined the disease because individuals with College of Medicine faculty at the Participants in the Nun Study are this memory disorder cannot accuUniversity of Kentucky in 1990, the American Roman Catholic sisters rately recall their history. The constudy was expanded to include older who are members of the School vent archives contain a wealth of Notre Dames throughout the United Sisters of Notre Dame, an interna- information including baptismal States. The Nun Study is housed tional religious congregation that records, birth certificates, socioecowithin the Sanders-Brown Center on began more than 150 years ago in nomic characteristics of the family, Aging at the University of Kentucky Bavaria, Germany. The 678 partici- education documentation, autobiogChandler Medical Center. The Cen- pants in the Nun Study were 75 to raphies written in early, mid, and late What is the Nun Study?

The Nun Stydy


life, as well as residential, social, and sions (senile plaques and neurofibriloccupational data describing their lary tangles) were present in the cormid and late lives. tex of the brain to cause the clinical symptoms of the disease (i.e., impairment in memory; impairment in Why study nuns? another area of cognition, such as language and visuospatial ability; Extrapolation of findings from this and impairment in social or occupaunique population may be limited. tional functioning). To receive a diHowever, this potential disadvan- agnosis of Alzheimers disease, partage is largely offset by other advan- ticipants in the Nun Study must have tages of this population, such as the sufficient Alzheimers disease leconvent archives. Many factors that sions in the brain, as well as cogniconfound (or confuse) the findings tive and social impairments indicaof other studies are either eliminated tive of clinical dementia. In short, we or minimized because of the rela- use a clinical-neuropathologic diagtively homogeneous adult lifestyles nosis of Alzheimers disease. In adand environments of these women. dition to diagnostic information, the Participants in this study are non- brain tissue provides a rich source smokers, drink little if any alcohol, of information on how the structure have the same marital status and re- and chemical make-up of the brain productive history, have lived in simi- may provide individuals protection lar housing, held similar jobs, and against brain diseases. had similar access to preventive and medical care. Why do the sisters participate in this study? Where are the sisters? During the last 150 years, education Participants in the Nun Study live in has been the primary mission of the seven religious provinces of the School Sisters of Notre Dame conSchool Sisters of Notre Dame lo- gregation. Sisters in this congregacated throughout the Eastern, Mid- tion have spent their adult lives eduwestern and Southern regions of the cating others and providing other United States. These provinces are services to their church and commuin St. Louis, Baltimore, Milwaukee, nity. Most sisters enrolled in the Nun Chicago, Dallas, Mankato MN, and Study because they believed their Wilton CT. While not currently par- participation would help other ticipating in this study, other sisters women throughout the world. Many in this congregation live throughout felt that they could continue teachEastern and Western Europe, Asia, ing and helping others in their old Africa, South American, and the Car- age, and even after their death, by ibbean. participating in this study. The bottom line is that these women are altruistic. Why is brain donation a requirement for participation in this study? Why dont you study men? All 678 participants in the Nun Study agreed to donate their brain at death to the University of Kentucky. A definitive diagnosis of Alzheimers disease can only be made at death by determining whether a sufficient number of Alzheimers disease leThe bulk of research in the past has been on white middle-aged men. This Nun Study is unique in that it is one of a very small number of studies on health and aging in women, and women make up the overwhelming majority of the elderly population throughout the world. We are happy to focus all of our efforts in the study of these women. Who is conducting the Nun Study? The Nun Study is a collaborative effort between the University of Kentucky and the School Sisters of Notre Dame congregation. Scientists from other universities also are actively collaborating with this study (e.g., University of South Florida, University of Kansas, Medical College of Wisconsin, Duke University, Emory University and Louisiana State University). In addition to many scientists and technicians, many leaders and health care providers of the School Sisters of Notre Dame congregation have made vital contributions to this study during the last ten years. Two Notre Dames, Sisters Gabriel Mary Spaeth and Marlene Manney, have devoted more than five years of full-time effort to the Nun Study. What are you finding? We are finding that traits in early, mid, and late life have strong relationships with the risk of Alzheimers disease, as well as the mental and cognitive disabilities of old age. Abstracts of our recent publications are presented on another page of this website. Complete copies of these publication can be obtained at any medical or university library.
* The Nun Study is directed by Dr. David Snowdon. He is a Professor of Neurology at the University of Kentuckys College of Medicine. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in epidemiology (i.e., the study of the causes of diseases in populations). His earliest education was strongly influenced by his primary teachers, who were Catholic sisters. He was born in Redlands, California in 1952.
Publicado en espaol en el Boletn de LAZOS de la Asociacin Alzheimer de Monterrey, ler. cuotrimestre, 2000/ Ao 4, No. 22.