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Determinants of Successful Aging: Developing an Integrated Research Agenda for the 21st Century |

Healthy Aging and Dementia: Findings from the Nun Study

David A. Snowdon, PhD
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From the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging and the University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky.


Acknowledgments: The author thanks the members, leaders, and health care providers of the School Sisters of Notre Dame religious congregation. Dr. William R. Markesbery generously provided scientific advice, as well as all neuropathologic evaluations. Sister Gabriel Mary Spaeth completed most of the annual functional evaluations, and Gari-Anne Patzwald provided editorial assistance.

Grant Support: By the U.S. National Institute on Aging grants R01AG09862 (D. Snowdon), K04AG00553 (D. Snowdon), and 5P50AG05144 (W. Markesbery); the Abercrombie Foundation; and the Kleberg Foundation. Abstracts of all Nun Study publications and other information about the study can be found at http://www.nunstudy.org.

Requests for Single Reprints: David A. Snowdon, PhD, Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, 320 Health Sciences Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40536-0200; e-mail, dsnowdon@nunstudy.mi8.com.


Ann Intern Med. 2003;139(5_Part_2):450-454. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-139-5_Part_2-200309021-00014
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The Nun Study is a longitudinal study of aging and Alzheimer disease in 678 Catholic sisters who are members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame congregation (111). The participants were 75 to 102 years of age at the beginning of the study in 1991, and the oldest member had survived to 107 years of age by 2002. There are three basic sources of data available about the participants. First, convent archives provide information about potential early and middle-life risk factors for Alzheimer disease and other disorders. Second, annual examinations document changes in the cognitive and physical function of each participant during old age. Third, because each sister agreed to brain donation at death, the structure and pathology of the brain can be related to early and middle-life risk factors and to late-life cognitive and physical function.

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Figure 1. Courtesy of Sandra Perry Raybourne.
Sister Matthia, a model of healthy aging in the Nun Study, at 104 years of age, 3 months before she died.
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Figure 2.
The relationship between the Braak and Braak staging of the degree or spread of Alzheimer disease neurofibrillary pathology and the prevalence of impairments in short-term memory (delayed word recall) at the last examination before death.
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