|The shortest distance between two people is a word or perhaps a thought. We live in an increasingly alienated society because we, for the most part, have stopped thinking. We let others do our thinking for us, like political analysts. We are enraptured by other people’s thought and not necessarily those of our own.
A study of Nuns was done by a Dr Snowdon, an epidemiologist, who looked at mental health of nuns prospectively. This means he looked at the brains of nuns after their death from previously consenting participants and then correlated the findings with screening tests for Alzheimer’s disease.
Before we get into what he found, some background would be helpful. Alzheimer’s disease, discovered and named in 1900, is a disease of short-termed memory loss that manifests in five different areas of the brain. If you look at thin slices of stained brain tissue under a microscope, you see tangles of brain cells immersed in a protein called amyloid. There are stages of the disease related to the severity and distribution of the tangles. Stage 0 showed rare tangles while stage 6 showed more disseminated damage. (Braak states 0 to 6) The Braaks estimated that it took fifty years to go through all the stages, but they never looked at brains under twenty years old.
In the Nun study, they found interesting things. The level of damage seen at autopsy did not necessarily correlate to the level of dysfunction seen in life. The Pathologist examining the brains had no knowledge of what the patient’s mental status was prior to examining the brain. He looked at the slides blind.
This of course leads to a question that fascinates everyone. Why are there differences? Education seems to have a protective role, but of course there were well-trained professors and medical doctors who had succumbed to the disease. The Nuns were a pretty well educated group, but this did not explain everything.
Nuns, as a group, are very historically minded. They keep everything. Researchers could go back into the archives and look at autobiographies of every nun as they took their vows. They used words differently. Those who were most susceptible used simple sentences with few modifiers or clauses. Those who seemed protected seem to use more convoluted complex sentence structure.
Is this good writing? That depends. Hemmingway was known for relatively simple sentence structure while William Faulkner could make a sentence last for half a page. Both were considered masters. Part of the answer depends on the reader and part on the skill of the writer.
Another factor of that communication was the level of positive emotions seen in the initial autobiography. Most did not have easy non-stressed lives, but those who could find positive outlook seem to faire better over a lifetime.
In your brain you have a virtual forest of nerve connections. Perhaps, complexity of thought means you have more connections so when damage occurs, you have a reserve to fall back on.
Many of the Nuns taught school for fifty years. Many remained active after retirement. One proudly noted that she learned to play piano at age 79.
I think it is not enough to have thoughts. It pays to visit them every once in a while. Write them down. Connect them. Make them rich and full of meaning. Maybe age will eventually ravage the internal structure of the brain, but not necessarily. Many folks want to know what you think, while you still can.
Aging with Grace, David Snowden, Bantam Books, 2001
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