Nun Study

Alzheimer’s disease study demonstrates SSND commitment to educating in broadest sense

One would not expect to find the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a congregation founded to teach girls in Bavaria, to be involved with cutting-edge biomedical research. And yet, the School Sisters of Notre Dame in North America have done just that for more than 20 years.

Our ministries have expanded over the years to follow God’s call, and that expansion has included research.

In the late 1980s, Dr. David Snowdon began a pilot study on aging with SSNDs in the Mankato, Minnesota, area. In 1990, Dr. Snowdon moved to the University of Kentucky and there expanded his study to include Alzheimer’s disease.

Sister Gabriel Mary Spaeth, a research associate with the Nun Study from 1991-2007, works with participant Sister Norita Reardon.

Ground-breaking Research

The National Institutes of Health-funded study was expanded in 1991 to all the SSND provinces in the United States. This longitudinal study accepted anyone 75 and older who was interested in participating and has been following them ever since. The last sister who had been enrolled in the Nun Study died in 2019.

In 1991, 1,027 sisters were eligible, and 678 enrolled – an astounding 66 percent participation rate. Yearly evaluations included various memory tests and physical functioning assessments, a one-time blood test for genetic evaluation of apolipoprotein E (a variation of which increases the risk for developing late-onset Alzheimer’s disease), and brain donation at death.

The Nun Study was incredibly unique at its initiation and has altered research ever since. There are multiple evaluations, some have completed 14 rounds. SSND archives have provided extensive data from sisters’ early lives. There also was homogeneity in living conditions, health care, and lifestyle that was difficult to control for in other studies.

Remarkable brain donation rate

Sisters visit The University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio where the Nun Study materials are housed.

Brain donation was agreed to whether or not the sister had dementia, and for the first time, they had a significant number of older, cognitively-intact brains to evaluate and compare. A 98 percent brain donation rate in the Nun Study is remarkable and difficult for any other study to duplicate.

Numerous papers have been written about the research results, but the finding related to Idea Density has been the most unique. Evaluating sisters’ autobiographies written when they were in their early 20s, researchers found that those with the greatest idea density were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease later in life. Another discovery showed that fewer Alzheimer’s disease brain lesions were required to cause dementia if a stroke was also present.

After Dr. Snowdon retired, the study moved back to the University of Minnesota in 2008. Data can be evaluated for years to come. Some researchers are using data to look further into Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders.

New studies in progress

Dr. Flanagan (center) and her staff welcome SSND to their lab.

In 2021, Dr. Margaret (Maggie) E. Flanagan, MD, assumed the directorship of the Nun Study, marking a pivotal moment in the study’s narrative. She not only embraced the leadership role but also undertook the monumental task of relocating the priceless materials of the Nun Study from Chicago, Illinois, to San Antonio, Texas, bringing with her a wealth of knowledge and the legacy of the extraordinary participants. Since February of 2023, the Nun Study samples and archives have been safely stored at The University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio (UTHSCSA) in the Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases. Here, Dr. Flanagan hopes to reestablish the Nun Study’s significance in research, continuing the efforts that began 36 years ago.

As they collaborate with the researchers and participate in the studies, School Sisters of Notre Dame are demonstrating that they truly are educators in all that they are and do.

– Dr. Charlene Zeisset, SSND, liaison to the Nun Study