Sister Bernadette was a famous participant of a Nun Study focused on understanding the horrors of Alzheimer’s. What she contributed to the medical community changed everything previously believed about the debilitating disease
According to the Nun Study, Sister Bernadette was one of 678 participants who suffered the effects of Alzheimer’s.
Each patient was a Sister of the American Roman Catholic Church from the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
Their cognitive and physical abilities were assessed by undergoing a series of physical exams, blood draws, genetic and nutritional studies, and brain scans.
The study lasted decades, with tests conducted annually. Sister Bernadette’s PT scans revealed her brain was fully entangled in the most aggressive stage of Alzheimer’s, yet her mannerisms, communication skills and cognitive abilities never revealed signs of mental decay.
She was tested at 81, 83 and 84-years-old, with each test result bearing the same news as the previous – Alzheimer’s was present but for some reason it wasn’t affecting her like it normally would.
Unable to explain the phenomenon, David Snowdon, the epidemiologist who started the Nun Study, attempted to explain away the miracle in the only way he knew – through a science-based hypothesis.
“It was as if her neocortex was resistant to destruction for some reason,” he reported. “Sister Bernadette appears to have been what we, and others, have come to call an ‘escapee.’ Death had intervened before her symptoms had time to surface.”
Alzheimer’s affects people in different ways but there are usually symptoms well before the brain becomes riddled with the plaques and tangles of the disease.
So why was Sister Bernadette of sound mind when she passed away?
Dr. Snowdon wrote: “The Nun Study’s real eye-opening findings…are the ones that add to the evidence that Alzheimer’s is not a yes/no disease. Rather it is a process – one that evolves over decades and interacts with many other factors.”
Many turn to Sister Bernadette’s lifestyle in an effort to stave off the effects of the horrendous disease.
She was one of many elderly nuns who authored essays. Hers were grammatically complex, revealing not only her mental capacity but also her continued efforts to learn and grow as a writer.
Neurobiologist Wolf Singer believes the environment in which we submerge ourselves can influence how our brains grow and improve over time.
In other words, one must stimulate the mind to “exercise” the brain, which can help push aside the effects of Alzheimer’s.
As more studies are conducted on genetic factors, innate abilities and influences of the brain’s abilities reveal physical and mental exercises can promote neuron health and stave off the various forms of dementia.
Doctors remain unable to scientifically explain Sister Bernadette’s exceptional mental abilities beyond a shadow of doubt – but her example has led to several hypotheses and made possible new forms of research into the complex disease that is Alzheimer’s.
By Monique Crawford