Lessons in Health Straight from a Convent

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Valuable lessons in health and aging-prevention are being delivered by none other than nuns themselves. In a convent in Manikota, Minnesota, 700 elderly nuns have donated their brains for a scientific study of aging and its effects on the brain. The average life span of these nuns is a hefty 85 years. One hundred and fifty of them have celebrated their 90th birthday and beyond. All of the nuns in the study have similar backgrounds, eat similar food, share the same vocation, live and work in similar conditions, and none consume tobacco and alcohol.

The project is ongoing and conclusions are yet to be drawn. However, one thing already stands out--the level of education consistently appears to make a difference with regard to the aging process. The nuns who earned college degrees live longer and are mentally sharper than the ones who did not. Why? Because the more educated nuns continue to learn, read, write, and intellectually challenge themselves while the less educated do more of the physical work such as cooking and cleaning.

Post-mortem analysis of the brains of the nuns who died has shown significant structural changes in the brain. The brains of the nuns with higher education had a thicker cortex, more densely packed brain cells, and more synapses and dendrites which are known to facilitate communication and interconnections between the brain cells.

Education indeed slows down aging and nudges the brain to grow even during the advancing years. The Farmingham Study which followed 1474 adults for a period of 21 years found that a higher level of education was positively associated with mental and physical fitness. The impact of education on health was found to be more important than that of smoking, blood pressure, and cholesterol.

Education is not limited to a classroom. For the educationally driven, life itself is a "school at-large." For them, education is a way of life, and so it is for the Manikota sisters of Minnesota. Daily use of "mental calisthenics" is the routine for these nuns. They are constantly reading, learning, and debating. They regularly hold seminars on social issues and current events. They write to their representatives and senators for legislative action. They participate in TV quiz shows as part of their continuing education.

To give further examples of their program, a 99-year old nun helps ailing nuns by challenging them on vocabulary, card games, and puzzles. Another 96-year old just retired from her teaching job and started a new career in pottery. Still another, at age 103, takes to knitting, and makes a goal of knitting one pair of mittens a day. She has finished over 1500 pairs!

Both mental and physical challenges are definitely helpful for mental fitness and protection against aging. Mental exercises are like jogging for the mind. Physical exercises stimulate heart and lungs and thus increase the oxygen to the brain. Dr. Arnold Scheibel, a neurosurgeon and Director of the Brain Research Institute at University of California at Los Angeles, refutes the claim that the brain is hard-wired during adolescence and is "fixed" by the time we reach adulthood. The brain is the most adaptable, flexible, and pliable of our organs.

Dr. Schiebel's research has demonstrated that age-related mental deterioration and memory loss can be reversed. He claims that any task or activity that is intellectually challenging can serve to stimulate the growth of dendrites--which is like adding more memory to your computer.

Select an activity that is unfamiliar to you. Even better, select something that is new and intriguing. For example, if you are a musician, take flight lessons or if you are a lawyer, learn to play a musical instrument that you don't know anything about. Different activities stimulate different parts of the brain. For example, to stimulate your left brain, try crossword puzzles. Try jigsaw puzzles to stimulate your right brain. Crossword puzzles can help with speech and writing skills while jigsaw puzzles can help with map reading skill. If you have good verbal skills, try drawing, painting, or pottery. If you are more artistic type, start writing a journal and stories or, take a course in creative writing.

According to Marilyn Albert, a brain researcher at the Harvard University, dancing, particularly, square dancing, ballet, tap dancing, and line dancing, aids small blood vessels and increases oxygen to the brain. If you have not attempted these activities before, the benefits will be multiple and your brain will thank you.

Renee Garfinkel, a researcher in age related deterioration, says that a young person in poor health tends to report feeling older, while an old person in good health rends to report feeling younger. "Getting old" is a relative term.

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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