There are some sisters in Good Counsel Hill, Mankato, Minnesota who seem to have gained the edge over the rest of mankind in mental and physical health. The Covent of the School Sisters of Notre Dame have been studied with a pioneering brain-science experiment by David Snowdon of Sanders-Brown Centre on Ageing and the University of Kentucky in Lexington.
The study was conducted into the mental health and ageing in general of 678 Catholic sisters recruited in 1991 between that ages of 75 –107. Their miraculous longevity – they boast seven centurions and many others well on their way – is attributed to their impeccable lifestyle. “They don’t drink or smoke they live quietly in community, they are spiritual and calm and eat healthily and in moderation.”
Some of the sisters have suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, but many have avoided any kind of dementia and senility. A strange occurrence is that one sister who lived until she was 104, in a post-mortem showed no signs of excessive ageing in her brain, whereas other sisters who showed no outward signs of senility were discovered to have brains apparently ravaged by dementia!
A common denominator amongst them was they each had the right amount of the vitamin folate, early verbal ability and positive emotions which showed in essays they wrote in their twenties when they took their vows. They engaged in several activities such as crosswords, knitting and exercising holding to the adage “use it or lose it.” Their spirituality was also a contributing factor. As one nun said: “Think no evil, do no evil, hear no evil, and you will never write a best-selling novel!”
There are several recommended ways of improving your brainpower as you age. It is said that: “you are what you eat” and your brain is the greediest organ of your body, with some specific dietary requirements. The first essential is eating breakfast, for the brain is best fuelled by a steady supply of glucose. That does not mean eating sugary cereals like kids do, for they apparently perform at the level of a 70-year old, it seems that beans on toast is a far better meal, for they have proved that a high-fibre diet improves cognition. The Bible says: “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him!” (Ps 34:8). The best diet?
It is also suggested that music may tune you up your thinking, but you cannot just crank up the volume and expect to be a genius. Frances Rauscher of the University in Wisconsin has proved that for rats, at least, a Mozart piano sonata seems to stimulate activity in three genes involved in nerve cell signalling to the brain. Researchers think that music makes you feel better, more relaxed and stimulated all at the same time. They also found that six-year old children who were taught music for two years as opposed to drama scored up to 3 points more in their IQ test. Keep singing the hymns! “They lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and praised the LORD, saying: “For He is good, for His mercy endures forever.” (2 Chr 5:13-14).
The brain’s short-term information storage system is the workbench for the solving of mental problems. It is called the working memory (WM) and the amount of information it can hold relates to general intelligence. If this WM is trained they have found that in children their IQ can leap as much as 8 percent. It is thought therefore that memory training can unlock brainpower. The Bible says “Thy word have I hidden (memorised) in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11).
Lastly, sleep on it. “If you have been awake for 21 hours straight, your abilities are equivalent to someone who is legally drunk.” Also, two or three late nights and early mornings do the same. More or adequate sleep periods enable people to concentrate better and respond to mental stimuli. “Attention is the base of a mental pyramid,” says Sean Drummond from the University of San Diego. Professor Biggs of Cambridge says that no one can study (undisrupted attention) realistically for more than 20 minutes at a time. Whilst we sleep the mind goes into problem-solving mode.
There’s a thought of resting that sleep implies and the Bibles again comes to our aid: “Rest in the LORD, and wait patiently for Him; do not fret . . . (Ps 37:7). If we feed and simulate the brain and keep active, cut out smoking and drinking, and take up knitting who knows how long we’ll live; best to start now.