Improving Your Vocabulary: The Nun Study

What's the point in improving your English language skills, when it comes down to it? People can understand what you're saying pretty well, you get your message across, you get by ... what's the big deal?

Tip: If you are serious about improving your vocabulary, then Troy and I highly recommend you try the popular vocabulary program, Ultimate Vocabulary. Click Ultimate Vocabulary for further information.*

Various studies have shown, however, that having good literacy skills in your youth translates into better mental health outcomes in your advancing years, with significantly lower rates of Alzheimer's Disease and other forms of dementia.

The Nun Study is a longitudinal study (where information on participants is gathered over a very long time) of — you guessed it — a community of nuns.

678 nuns from the School Sisters of Notre Dame in the United States have been participating in this long-term sociological study headed by Dr David Snowdon. This community is a particularly useful one to study, since many factors are the same for all of them (diet, activities, housing, non-smoking, non-drinking, access to the same health care), which makes looking for trends and patterns much easier.

The study is looking at factors affecting ageing and disability, in particular. The study's goal is looking for "the causes and prevention of Alzheimer's disease, other brain diseases, and the mental and physical disability associated with old age". The nuns were aged between 75 and 102 years old at the start ofthe study in 1986, and the study continues to this day.

The researchers have said "We are finding that traits in early, mid, and late life have strong relationships with the risk of Alzheimer's disease, as well as the mental and cognitive disabilities of old age."

Since 1930, each novice was required to write an autobiography before she took her vows. Dr Snowdon came across these valuable archives (held in many of the Order's convents across the USA), and was allowed to access them for his research. After developing their research methods, the researchers could predict (with 85-90% accuracy) whether or not a nun would develop Alzheimer's disease about sixty years later, solely by evaluating the autobiography she had written in her youth.

When analysing the autobiographies, "idea density" was the crucial factor — this is an assessment tool used by psycholinguists to determine someone's linguistic ability. Idea density is defined as "the number of propositions (individual ideas) expressed per ten words." Idea density "reflects language processing ability, which in turn is associated with a person's level of education, general knowledge, vocabulary, and reading comprehension." (But just having complex sentences stuffed full of concepts doesn't mean a piece of writing is clear or good literature. It is purely a measuring tool used by researchers.)

The startling result from this section of the study is that the nuns who wrote the most literate autobiographies, with the widest vocabulary and most complex writing, had much lower rates of senile dementia and Alzheimer's in their old age.

A higher positive emotional content in a nun's early writing, indicating a positive outlook early in life, also translated to longevity. In addition, "The better-educated sisters had a lower risk of death at every age. In other words, the protective effects of education seemed to start early and last throughout life." 

It is not true that as we age our minds simply "wear out". It is entirely possible to get to the end of a long life with our mental faculties completely intact.

A few of Dr Snowdon's recommendations :

  • Read to your children. It's the most important thing you can do with them.
  • The brain is capable of changing and growing, forming new neural connections, throughout life. It's never too late!!
  • Stroke prevention is vitally important for your mental health. It seems that small strokes can act as a trigger in people who have Alzheimer's lesions in their brains, causing the symptoms of dementia to appear. 

High blood pressure causes more strokes than anything else. So do whatever you can to reduce your blood pressure if it is high. Dr Snowdon fervently advocates:

  • taking antihypertension drugs, if recommended by your doctor
  • exercise
  • a diet high in vegetables and fruits, and low in fats
  • lose weight if you are over your healthiest weight
  • take steps to bring your cholesterol into a normal range, if it is high

By the way, there is no proven connection between aluminium intake and the development of Alzheimer's. The studies in the 1960s showed some correlation in rabbit studies, but later studies showed that rabbit and human brains are significantly different, and the conclusions didn't apply to us (thankfully)!

And where does this leave us? Well, it's clear that developing a broad vocabulary has many benefits, for your long-term mental and physical health. There's no time like the present to put the time in each day to improving your mental and physical health, so do some puzzles, learn some new words, go for a walk, eat delicious and nutritious food ... no-one else can do it for you, after all.


1. The Nun Study official web site (University of Minnesota)

2. Dr David Snowdon, Aging with Grace, Bantam Dell

*Troy and I recommend only products that we have tried and tested. These include Ultimate Vocabulary. We have agreed to receive a commission from some sales of Ultimate Vocabulary software because we are happy to endorse that software.


Last modified on Tuesday, 17 November 2015 04:42
English Language Skills (Denise)

English Language Skills (Denise)

I'm a syndicated puzzle writer, with 8 puzzle books to my name, including Word Searches for Dummies and Cracking Codes and Cryptograms for Dummies (with Mark Koltko-Rivera). I have a background in science and graphic design, and am a trained indexer. My favourite puzzles are cryptic crosswords. and my favourite books are murder mysteries and cookbooks. I am also a very keen knitter.

I write a blog all about puzzles, called Puzzling.

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