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Learning About Alzheimer's From a Study of Nuns

The memory-robbing illness of Alzheimer's disease affects an estimated 4million elderly Americans, and that number is expected to skyrocket as baby boomers age.

There's no cure for the disease yet, but doctors are learning new ways to delay its onset. Surprisingly, some of their best data comes from a convent of elderly nuns.

At 100 plus, Sister Esther is the oldest nun in the School Sisters of Notre Dame order. She is also one of the most active--bicycling for 10 minutes every morning.

She and nearly 700 of her fellow sisters are part of what's called "The Nun Study."

For 15 years, University of Kentucky scientist David Snowden has been carefully studying the elderly women's personal and medical histories as well as testing their cognitive development. He even dissects their brains after death. It's all in an effort to unlock the mysteries of Alzheimer's disease.

"These are super nuns. They have wonderful genes, wonderful upbringing, a good, clean, active, giving life," says Snowden.

And it is this good, clean, active, giving life that makes Sister Esther and her fellow nuns the ideal subjects for a scientific study. They have all led very similar lives. None of them smoke, they rarely drink, and their bodies haven't gone through the changes associated with pregnancy. And after a lifetime of working for God, they are only too happy to work to save lives.

We talked to Dr. Bernadine Healy, CBS News health contributor and president of the American Red Cross, about the significance of the study.

What are the most important findings of this new report?

There are two. First, the importance of positive emotions. As part of the study, researchers have gone through the autobiographies the nuns wrote before entering the convent. They found that those who expressed more positive emotions in these autobiographies lived significantly longer, sometimes as much as 10 years longer than the nuns who did not have a positive outlook. These women were also less likely to show the signs of Alzheimer's.

Next we've learned about the importance of intellectual development. Nuns who wrote their autobiographies in complex sentences were also less likely to show the signs of Alzheimer's six decades later. They used their brains more.

There is no cure for Alzheimer's, but you say there are steps people can take to delay the onset of dementia. Let's begin with protecting your head.

That's right. We have seen a link between head trauma and Alzheimer's. So it's important when you are riding a bike to wear a helmet and to buckle up when you are in the car.

  • Education--Use it or lose it. Statistically, the more education you get, the less likely you are to show signs of Alzheimer's. There is evidence that schooling postpones memory and orientation problems. Education may even help brain cells build up more connections, which gives someone a reserve to draw from when their neural ntwork begins to fade.
  • Mind games--Just like our bodies, our brains need exercise too. You can work your brain by learning a new skill or playing cards or even doing a crossword puzzle.
  • Eat right--One of the strongest findings in the Nun study was the link between folic acid and mental health. Folic acid seems to protect the brain's central learning and reasoning regions from shrinkage. We suggest getting about 400 micrograms of folic acid every day. Most multivitamins contain that amount.
  • Keep in touch--Keep in close touch with family and friends. Interaction with loved ones keeps your spirits up and slows the onset of mental decline. Studies have shown that seniors who take part in community groups take longer to show signs of Alzheimer's than those who sit alone all day.
  • Family history--Alzheimer's runs in your family. It is a good idea to get screened for genes linked to the disease If you know you are susceptible, you can begin making changes right away.

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