Her walker parked behind her chair, Sister Ellen Springer sits at a scarred wooden table with the other nuns who work in the Sisters of St. Joseph print shop. The simple tasks she performs—cutting, folding and stapling—do not tax her intellect. But she finds peace in the repetitive work.
“We all have jobs to do, and this is mine. It’s just how I help out around here.”
For 48 years, Sister Ellen, now 86, had another job: She taught science at a Catholic high school. When she retired from teaching in 1994, she joined the Religious Orders Study. “Nuns are not immune to disease,” she says. “We suffer from heart attacks and cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, same as anybody.”
In the 15 years since, she has come to look forward to the annual January visit of the research team from the Religious Orders Study. The researchers ask her questions about her diet and activities. After a physical assessment, they test her memory and cognitive abilities.
Some of the questions are simple: What’s the date today? The day of the week? The season? The researchers show Sister Ellen flash cards and ask her to identify the pictures that appear on them. And when she reaches the end of the deck, she must recite the order in which the pictures appeared.
The researchers then tell her a detailed story. When they finish, they ask Sister Ellen to recount what she heard. Five minutes pass, and they once again ask her to recount the story.
All of this data gathering is aimed at providing new insights into the nature of memory. “As the brain ages, it naturally atrophies,” says OMRF’s Hensley. “What we’re trying to figure out is how to develop your brain so, even as the pathology accumulates, you don’t lose your memory.”
Sometimes, seemingly mundane data speak volumes. For example, tracking the participants’ diets has led to new information on the role omega-3 fish oils play in the ability to remember. Detailed clinical evaluations provided the first evidence linking weight loss among the elderly to the onset of Alzheimer’s. The yearly assessments have also broken important new ground in showing that the brain, like other organs, needs to be “exercised” and that continued intellectual activities (such as reading and crossword puzzles) help keep dementia at bay.
“The real power of the Religious Orders Study is its scope,” Hensley says. “By studying such a large group of individuals over a long period of time, we have access to tremendous amounts of data. Combing through the subtleties of that data has produced many important findings.”
Indeed, the study has now generated more than 100 scientific publications. And for at least one retired nun, volunteering as a research subject has provided one more chance to continue a life of altruism.
“If it can help somebody, who am I to say no?” Sister Ellen says. “Helping is part of who I am.”