Why do Nuns age so well?

In music one must think with the heart and feel with the brain
— George Szell

As music students learn how to play an instrument, tiny cells in their brain make connections and communicate with each other. Areas of the brain light up like fireworks as they process melody and rhythm. Learning how to play a musical instrument can be compared to giving the brain a full body workout!

One of the best ways you can maintain brain health is by exercising the brain by learning something new. Particularly, something that is cognitively stimulating. Stimulating the brain with continuous intellectual activity keeps the cells in our brain healthy and alive.


"One of the best ways you can maintain brain health is by exercising the brain by learning something new"


What is happening in the brain?

Our brain’s capacity to change and reorganise itself whenever something new is learned and memorised is called Brain Plasticity or neuroplasticity. This can happen at any age!

Our brain is built up of billions of nerve cells called Neurons which communicate through chemical and electrical activity. Learning something new affects what is happening at the level of these individual cells in our brain. As we learn something new, cells that send and receive information about the task become increasingly efficient (2). They become wired together.

As well as this, the amount of Myelin surrounding Neurons in the brain increases (Fields, 2008). Myelin is a fatty substance that insulates the axon of a Neuron, it makes the signals move faster, so that our brain is more connected and feels like it works faster and better. A thicker sheath of Myelin improves all kinds of brain tasks and is associated with better decision making.

Brains are personalized and are dependent on an individual’s experiences. Expertise in different areas has even been shown to change the structure of a person’s brain! The Primary auditory cortex, an area of the brain involved in processing auditory information, was found to be larger in the brains of musicians compared to the brains of non-musicians. It was also found that the increased volume was associated with the level of musical expertise of the musicians tested (4).




Why do nuns age so well?

Keeping our brains active by learning new things can increase the brain's cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve is our brain’s ability to optimize performance through differential recruitment of brain networks and alternative cognitive strategies. It is therefore thought that cognitive reserve can help people cope better with age-related brain changes and may also help brain recovery after injury.

Results from The Nun Study, a Longitudinal study of over 600 Nuns, started by the researcher David Snowdon at the University of Minnesota, shows the importance of keeping the brain active. The study, which continues today, takes information from personal and medical history, cognitive function, and brain autopsy after death. One of the main findings of the Nun Study is that an active intellectual life can protect against the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

Brain autopsies which showed physical destruction to the brain typical of Alzheimer’s disease, have been found to not always be associated with mental deterioration before death. The leading theory as to why this has been observed has been put down to cognitive reserve, that some people have reserve of mental capacity that can keep them functioning despite the loss of brain tissue. All sisters did show age-related decline in mental function, but those who had taught for most of their lives for example, showed more moderate outward decline (3).


Five simple tricks to keep your brain active!

Of course, it must be noted that genetics and other predisposing factors may still override the benefits of learning new things. But following a few of our tips below to keep the brain active may help!

  1. Find a novel activity to stimulate and continually challenge your brain. Join a gardening club or learn a new language!
  2. Take part in activities that reflect everyday activities, the more similar the training is to skills you use in everyday life, the more likely it will help you in other areas of your life.
  3. Combine different elements that are beneficial to brain health. Social and Physical engagement have also been shown to be important for brain health. Choose activities like dancing, or tennis, which involve social and physical engagement.
  4. Choose an activity that you enjoy. If you enroll in continuing education, study something you are interested in. You will be more likely to be motivated and committed over time.
  5. Lastly, start challenging yourself today! The younger you start, the better your brain function will be as you age.


Check out:

How playing a musical instrument benefits your brain. Anita Collins


Nuns and the Aging Brain, The Brain with David Eagleman


Dr. Lara Boyd’s Ted talk on Neuroplasticity and personalized learning.



Further Reading:

1. R.D. Fields. White matter in learning, cognition and psychiatric disorders. Trends in Neurosciences. June 5, 2008 (online). doi: 10.1016/j.tins.2008.04.001

2. R. Patel et al. Functional brain changes following cognitive and motor skills training: A quantitative meta-analysis. Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair. October 23, 2012 (online). doi: 10.1177/1545968312461718.

3. Lemonick, M. D., & Park, A. (2001). The nun study. Time, 157(19), 54-61.

4. Schneider, P., Scherg, M., Dosch, H. G., Specht, H. J., Gutschalk, A., & Rupp, A. (2002). Morphology of Heschl's gyrus reflects enhanced activation in the auditory cortex of musicians. Nature neuroscience, 5(7), 688.