top of page
top strip.JPG

BBN | Vol 1 Issue 1 | Nun Study Reveals Secrets

Updated: Apr 20

Unlocking brain health and resilience.


Remarkable discoveries have been unfolding among the congregation of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. This unique exploration into the lives of these dedicated women has provided valuable insights into the mysteries of brain health and cognitive resilience. Let’s delve into the fascinating world of the Nun Study and uncover the secrets it holds about maintaining a healthy brain, including a peculiar finding that nuns with the pathology of a Dementia did not necessarily exhibit its symptoms.


The Nun Study

Initiated in 1986 by Dr. David Snowdon, the Nun Study focuses on a group of Catholic nuns whose lives have been dedicated to faith, service, and education. What makes this study particularly intriguing is its connection to brain health and aging. The nuns generously agreed to donate their brains for postmortem analysis, allowing scientists to examine the relationship between their lifestyles, cognitive abilities, and the physical state of their brains.


Healthy Aging and Cognitive Reserve

The results of the Nun Study have been groundbreaking, revealing a strong connection between certain lifestyle factors and cognitive health. One key concept from this research is the idea of cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve refers to the brain’s ability to withstand damage and continue functioning optimally even in the face of aging or neurological diseases.


Education and Cognitive Reserve

The nuns, many of whom were highly educated, exhibited a remarkable cognitive reserve. Education acts as a shield for the brain, providing a reserve that allows people to maintain cognitive function despite the wear and tear occurring over time. Investing in education enriches our brains and fortifies our cognitive resilience.


Social Engagement and Emotional Well-Being

Beyond education, the Nun Study highlights the importance of social engagement and emotional well-being in maintaining cognitive health. The nuns who reported greater satisfaction in their lives and had strong social connections exhibited lower rates of cognitive decline. This emphasizes the holistic nature of brain health, acknowledging the interconnectedness of brain, body, and spirit.


Physical Exercise and Brain Benefits

In addition to intellectual and social factors, physical exercise emerged as a crucial element in the Nun Study. The nuns who engaged in regular physical activities demonstrated better cognitive performance and a reduced risk of developing cognitive disorders. This reinforces the well-established link between a healthy body and a healthy brain.


The Enigma of Dementia Pathology

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Nun Study is the discovery that some nuns who had the pathological signs of a disease associated with Dementia did not exhibit its symptoms. This "secret" phenomenon challenges conventional wisdom about the direct correlation between the presence of brain pathology and the manifestation of cognitive decline.


The Role of Cognitive Reserve in Defying Dementia

Researchers hypothesize that the strong cognitive reserve built through education, social engagement, and intellectual stimulation protects against the outward expression of Dementia-related pathology. These nuns, despite having the physical markers of disease in their brains, maintained cognitive function due to the resilience fortified through a lifetime of intellectual pursuits and social connections.


Education as a Lifelong Journey

Education doesn’t end with a diploma or a degree; it is a lifelong journey. Embrace the joy of learning, explore new subjects, and challenge your brain regularly. The Nun Study findings have shown us that each nugget of knowledge contributes to the cognitive reserve, building a resilient foundation for the challenges of aging.


Nurturing Social Bonds

Cultivate meaningful relationships with family, friends, and community. Social engagement not only brings joy and fulfillment but also acts as a protective factor against cognitive decline. Make time for conversations, shared experiences, and laughter, recognizing the profound impact of human connection on brain health.


Prioritizing Emotional Well-Being

Pay attention to your emotional well-being. Practice mindfulness, manage stress, and seek support when needed. The Nun Study underscores the significance of emotional health in preserving cognitive function, emphasizing the intricate connection between mental and emotional well-being.


Embracing Physical Activity

Incorporate regular physical activity into your routine. It doesn’t have to be strenuous; a brisk walk, dancing, or gardening can offer substantial brain benefits. The Nun Study’s insights have taught us that taking care of our bodies directly contributes to the longevity and vitality of our brains.



The Nun Study has given us a profound understanding of the factors contributing to brain health and cognitive reserve, including the intriguing revelation that some people with a disease pathology may not exhibit its symptoms. As we navigate life’s journey, let us heed the call to action embedded in this research. By embracing education, nurturing social bonds, prioritizing emotional well-being, and engaging in regular physical activity, we can fortify our cognitive resilience and lead fulfilling lives, maintaining the vibrancy of our brains well into the golden years. The School Sisters of Notre Dame have not only left a legacy of service and faith but have also gifted us with invaluable lessons on how to age with grace, wisdom, and a resilient brain.


A Call to Action

As we reflect on the lessons from the Nun Study, it becomes clear that we can shape our cognitive destiny. The call to action is simple yet profound: Invest in your cognitive reserve. Whether through continued learning, fostering social connections, maintaining emotional well-being, or engaging in regular physical exercise, there are many avenues to build a better brain.

What Can I Do? 

  1. Start small: Try writing your name and address on a piece of paper with your nondominant hand. If you’re right-handed, do it with your left. Don’t worry about perfection or legibility. Just complete the task as best you can. Then, repeat the process a few times to make incremental improvements.

  2.  Dust off a recipe book and get the ingredients to make a meal you’ve never made or one that your parents made that you haven’t had in ages.

  3. Lastly, get and read Dr. David Snowdon’s book “Aging with Grace” through your local library, bookstore, or online.

Additional Selected Reading:

  1. Snowdon, D. A., Kemper, S. J., Mortimer, J. A., Greiner, L. H., Wekstein, D. R., & Markesbery, W. R. (1996). Linguistic ability in early life and the neuropathology of Alzheimer's disease and cerebrovascular disease. Findings from the Nun Study. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 800(1), 175-179.

  2. Snowdon, D. A. (2003). Healthy aging and dementia: findings from the Nun Study. Annals of Internal Medicine, 139(5_Part_2), 450-454.

  3. Bennett, D. A., Schneider, J. A., Tang, Y., Arnold, S. E., & Wilson, R. S. (2006). The effect of social networks on the relation between Alzheimer's disease pathology and level of cognitive function in old people: a longitudinal cohort study. The Lancet Neurology, 5(5), 406-412.

  4. Mortimer, J. A., Snowdon, D. A., & Markesbery, W. R. (2003). Head circumference, education and risk of dementia: findings from the Nun Study. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 25(5), 671-679.

  5. Aging with Dignity (Publisher of Five Wishes). (n.d.). About Five Wishes. Retrieved from

127 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page