Nuns put their brains in scientist's hands

Researcher studies Alzheimer's disease

September 12, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

About a decade ago, Dr. David A. Snowdon, an epidemiologist studying the causes of Alzheimer's disease, asked the School Sisters of Notre Dame to be the focus of his investigation, adding a delicate request.

Snowdon knew the nuns had dedicated their lives to teaching. Now, he was asking them to donate their brains to science.

Luckily, many shared the attitude of Sister Virgina Geiger, who taught philosophy for 63 years at the College of Notre Dame.

"It didn't bother me in the least," said the 86-year-old Geiger, who "retired" last year to write a history of the Baltimore Province of sisters. "After all, it's after I'm dead!"

Geiger is one of 678 School Sisters of Notre Dame - including about 30 in Baltimore - who have taken part in the Nun Study, a long-term look at aging and Alzheimer's disease.

Snowdon released groundbreaking findings from the study this year in his book, Aging With Grace. He will speak about the Nun Study and sign his book at 7 o'clock tonight at the College of Notre Dame in Homeland.

Snowdon, who earlier had researched the link between diet and cancer with Lutherans and Seventh-day Adventists, felt that a group of Roman Catholic nuns would make the perfect population for his study on Alzheimer's disease. Religious orders keep copious records that help with such studies. And the nuns had similar lifestyles, jobs and incomes; they don't smoke, are celibate and receive similar health care, all of which reduced variables that could cloud data.

"The convent is probably the next best thing to a pure laboratory environment to study health," said Snowdon, who is a professor of neurology and researcher at the University of Kentucky Medical Center.

Snowdon began his study in 1986 with a group of nuns in Mankato, Minn., and expanded it to all School Sisters of Notre Dame in the country in 1990.

Asking nuns to donate their brains was something the veteran researcher and Catholic school graduate was a bit nervous about.

"The brain is about as personal an organ as you can get," Snowdon said. "And certainly in Catholicism, at least before the 1950s, it was generally thought you would need your body at Judgment Day for the soul to join the body and ascend to heaven or descend to hell."

Though Catholic teaching has changed and the church has permitted organ donation for decades. Still, Snowdon expected some reticence.

To Snowdon's surprise and relief, he had plenty of takers. There's even a joke that's gone around the community: "When we die our souls go to heaven, but our brains go to Kentucky."

"I think why we have gotten along so great with them and why they've agreed in such big numbers to donate their brains is they're educators," Snowdon said. "We're after the same thing. We want to expand the knowledge of a disease and how people can live longer and better lives. And they want to help people live longer and better lives themselves."

For nuns like Sister Coralie Ullrich, 88, who taught biology for 45 years at the college and now works in the registrar's office, the study offered an opportunity to continue serving after their deaths.

"I just thought it was a very interesting study, even when they said they were interested in studying my brain," she said. "Even that was kind of exciting because I'd be able to contribute something to research to help humanity."

In his research, Snowdon discovered a gold mine that yielded a key insight in the study: Each sister had written an autobiography as she entered the order, at the average age of 22.

"Sisters in their 20s who could pack a lot of ideas into a sentence, who had high linguistic ability, had had much less Alzheimer's disease in their brain and fewer symptoms of Alzheimer's disease," Snowdon said. Sisters who were positive, hopeful and optimistic in their autobiographies on average lived 10 years longer than sisters who had few positive thoughts.

Snowdon also found other factors that correlated with lessened existence or severity of Alzheimer's, including stroke prevention, proper diet, and avoiding or treating depression.

He said the nuns he studied may have other advantages. They stay active late into life. Many retire, but really only move into another ministry, remaining active into their 90s and beyond. Community life also seems to have a beneficial effect; the nuns avoid the isolation so common to the elderly.

"It's scientifically hard to study the importance of the community," he said. "But what I saw when I got there were women in their older age able to live with people they've lived with for 50, 60, 70 years, people they've known and worked with throughout their lives.

"What I thought," he said, "was `I want some of that.'"

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