The Nun Study
University of Kentucky Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, 101 Sanders-Brown Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40536-0230, (859) 257-1412
A partnership between a University of Kentucky researcher and a religious order of nuns continues to pay off as the Nun Study looks for clues to the causes of Alzheimer’s disease and other diseases associated with aging.
The Nun Study seeks to discover what factors in early, middle, and late life increase the risk of Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, and other brain diseases such as stroke.
The nuns are members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Studying a population with similar lifestyles allows researchers to make more powerful comparisons of factors involved in illness, according to Dr. David Snowdon, the UK researcher who instigated the study. The 678 nuns ranged in age from 75 to 102 when the study began.
The nuns have agreed to annual assessments of cognitive and physical function as well as a variety of medical tests. Upon death, they have agreed to donate their brain tissue for further studies. A definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease can be made only by examining the brain after death. In fact, the Nun Study is the largest brain donor population in the world.
Snowdon, a professor of neurology at UK, began the study in 1986 in Minnesota with a small group of Notre Dame sisters there and expanded it when he moved to Kentucky in 1990 to include nuns from other parts of the country. The work is primarily funded by the National Institute on Aging.
The study is unique in that it is one of very few focusing on aging and health in women. Women make up the majority of the elderly population.
Snowdon’s book about the Nun Study, Aging with Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives, was published in 2001. It was the May 2002 selection for bookclub@ket.