Study of nuns could lead to new ways of treating dementia

nun praying

A study of nuns which began over 30 years ago could have a huge impact on how we treat dementia in the future.

US scientists first started studying nuns in 1986 as they looked for clues about the onset of Alzheimer’s disease

The results were remarkable. Post mortem results on the nuns’ brains showed that a third of them had lived with Alzheimer’s disease.

However, when they had been alive they had not shown any symptoms.

Consultant psychiatrist Professor Brian Lawlor at Trinity College Dublin believes it could be because of the quality of life the nuns had in the developed world.

He said: “With the nuns, the belief is that those who have this more complex ability to express themselves in language – (maybe they had an innate ability and possibly it was down to education as well) – we believe we can build up a cognitive resource by exposing yourself to lots of things, social engagement, building up more plasticity in the brain.

“When you develop the pathology of dementia, you can compensate with a positive cognitive reserve – and build up a reserve through education, lifetime activity, and social engagement.

“In older age groups, the number of people developing dementia is falling off, and we feel that is linked to education and better heart health in the developed world

“The idea that we may be able to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease is a realistic goal. It’s about building up your cognitive reserve and plasticity in the brain.”

Factors such as depression, loneliness, isolation and hearing loss can all contribute to an increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Doctors are hoping to learn more about the markers of a person who is developing dementia so they can recommend suitable lifestyle changes.

Professor Lawlor said: “The pathology of Alzheimer’s starts to build up in mid-life. We need to build up early markers that appear in mid-life before people develop Alzheimer’s disease.

“We’re finding that people at the age of 80 in the developed world – who have better control of blood pressure, lower cholesterol in mid-life, and also better education in earlier life – it protects them from the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

“We may be able to stave off the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease; if you delay the onset by 5pc in a population, the numbers of people in the population is greatly reduced by about 40pc.”

“We have a study going on, and it’s linked in with the UK, called ‘Prevent Dementia’, and we’re looking at people between the ages of 40 and 59, some have a history, some don’t have a history of dementia, and it’s about trying to identify markers that will tell us of an increased risk of dementia years later.”

Professor Lawlor’s tips to help prevent dementia:

1. Get plenty of exercise:
2. A healthy Mediterranean-type diet
3. Try new things
4. Maintain an active social life
5. Minimise or avoid stress.
6. Make sure you are treated for high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
7. Stimulation the brain by solving puzzles such as Sudoku