Learn from the ‘Nun Study’ to age successfully

Statistics report that the most read part of the newspaper is the headlines, followed by the comics. I’ve read both of those for years. But now, I’m also an avid fan of the crossword puzzles.
What got me started was the conversation about crossword puzzles in my water aerobics class. They talked about which papers had the hardest puzzles and the fact the Sunday paper was the hardest of all.
And especially, they boasted about how fast they could finish a puzzle. In one hour, to be exact.
I hadn’t tried to solve a crossword puzzle for nearly 50 years, since a creative engagement announcement came from my roommate, Lois, and her fiancé, John. I could only guess what it said until I solved the puzzle.
Now, I decided to once again take up the crossword challenge. It has become a passion but I’m a long way from finishing one in an hour without cheating. That must take practice.
Since, I have become aware that crossword puzzles are recommended for successful aging by most gerontologists. Especially to maintain cognitive function in later life.
In the so-called “Nun Study” by Dr. David Snowdon, cognitive function was assessed. One day, Dr. Snowdon went to visit Sister Dorothy and was saddened by her emerging physical problems.
Sensing his dismay, the nurse said, “Watch out for this one. She may be in a wheelchair but the wheels are still spinning in her head.”
Dr. Snowdon noticed a folded paper on her lap and asked the nun, “Reading the paper?” “Oh, read it this morning,” she replied. “Now I’m just doing my puzzle.”
Showing him the New York Times crossword puzzle, the former language professor chuckled, “It keeps me out of mischief.”
As expected, Sister Dorothy died at 89 with no trace of Alzheimer’s symptoms. Time magazine announced Dr. Snowdon’s research with this headline–“How one scientist and 678 sisters are helping unlock the secrets of Alzheimer’s.”
“Aging With Grace–What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier and More Meaningful Lives” details Dr. Snowdon’s study of Catholic sisters, some of whom have remained lucid all their lives while others have become demented.
This was an ideal population to study. Income was not a factor, all the subjects are non-smokers, and all have similar access to diet, health care, and housing. The sisters also generously agreed to donate their brains for postmortem studies.
Among the project’s findings is a clear correlation between a low rate of Alzheimer’s and high linguistic ability. Furthermore, the researchers found that a positive emotional outlook in early life may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease in later life.
Dr. Richard Suzman of the U.S. National Institute of Aging cites this study for its finding that “optimism can predict and even aid longevity.”
Sister Nicolette, when asked by Dr. Snowdon, credited her longevity to exercise. “I have an exercise program,” she said “I walk several miles a day.”
His next question was, “And when did you start this exercise program?” “When I was 70,” she replied.
Other important findings of this landmark study were the importance of eating lots of fruits and vegetables, having social interaction, and staying active–many of the sisters retired at very advanced ages and even then they were active in the convent.
So if you want to age successfully, learn from the “Nun Study.” Begin today to exercise, eat your veggies, cultivate an optimistic outlook on life, never retire and, most of all, work your newspaper’s crossword puzzles.

Marie Snider is an award-winning health care writer and syndicated columnist.

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