Aging with Grace by David Snowdon

This was the book1 that made me want to give my brain away2

It’s a report on the author’s research on aging and the causes of Alzheimer’s, written not for his fellow scientists, but for those of us who don’t understand medical jargon but do want to understand more about this dreaded condition.

Dr Snowdon is an epidemiologist, a medical detective who looks for factors connected with disease and health. He chose to study a group of nuns because their lives were well documented and their lifestyles were similar, which reduced the number of variables he needed to take into account. When he sought permission from the School Sisters of Notre Dame for a research project he was surprised by a condition that was imposed.  He was told that he should not treat the nuns just as research subjects but that he should get to know them and treat them with the care and respect they deserved.

After his initial project studying the effect of education on longevity he began one on Alzheimer’s. The nuns who participated in this agreed to allow access to their records, undergo regular mental and physical evaluations and donate their brains for autopsies when they died. And because he spends time with the nuns, talking, playing cards and attending birthday parties, whenever a brain arrives for autopsy he remembers it means that someone has died. And for me, that is what makes this book so refreshing; it’s written by a man who not only knows his research subjects but loves them.

The book doesn’t provide any quick fix cure for Alzheimer’s but it does include observations on some of the factors that are less easy to measure: the faith that life does have meaning and the power of community to improve the quality of life for the frail elderly. A convent is not the only place where you can find a network of support and love; there are other ways to stay connected you can get married, join a club, meet your friends in the pub. But, if you’re a Birmingham City fan, don’t spend too much time talking about possible takeover scenarios; stress is not good for you.

  1. Aging with Grace: The Nun Study and the science of old age. How we can all live longer, healthier and more vital lives. by David Snowdon
  2. Brains for Dementia Research