I am currently finishing up the book Spark which I have talked about a few times on the blog. The book has been a fascinating read and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in better understanding the benefits of exercise.
The final section of this book is about exercise and aging. In this section Ratey references a study that began in 1986 and is still underway today. The study, conducted by Dr. David Snowden follows the lives of Catholic nuns who remain both mentally and physically active throughout their life, with many living to over 100 years of age. A large proportion of the nuns involved in the study have agreed to donate their brain to science upon their death.
Sister Bernadette was one of the nuns involved in the study. She died of a heart attack in the mid-1990s at the age of 85. She had scored in the 90th percentile on cognitive tests right up until she died. When her brain was examined post-mortem it showed massive damage from Alzheimer’s disease. Tissue from her hippocampus (memory bank) to her cortex was riddled with plaque (material associated with neurodegeneration) and she also carried the ApoE4 gene variant – making her more susceptible to neurodegenerative disorders. As Ratey writes, she should have been utterly lost to the ravages of dementia. Yet, she remained mentally sharp up until the day she died.
So why? How could she have scored so well on her cognitive tests? By staying mentally and physically active through teaching, doing crosswords, walking, gardening, and eating a balanced diet, Sister Bernadette was initiating and maintaining neurogenesis throughout her lifespan – she was helping her brain grow. And in doing so, improved her brain’s ability to compensate for the tissue loss associated with dementia by recruiting other areas to help with tasks.
Utterly fascinating. If you’re interested, Dr Snowden wrote a book about the study titled Aging with Grace. I cannot wait to read it.