Nuns, monks could unlock Alzheimer's mystery

Nuns and monks who never miss choir practice and work hard in their religious studies may pave the way to a greater understanding of Alzheimer's disease.

A study of almost 1,000 Catholic nuns, priests and monks over 12 years revealed that those who were most conscientious had a lower risk of developing the debilitating brain disease.

It is thought that being conscientious might make people better able to cope with plaques that build up in the brain, leading to the disease.

The latest study followed a group of nuns, monks and priests from across the United States. They were chosen as a group as they were deemed more likely to be willing to take part in a study that might help others in the future, but not themselves.

As well as assessing their medical well-being, the researchers also asked the group to rate themselves on areas such as self- discipline, reliability and being hard- working.

The average score among the group was 34 out of 48 - perhaps surprisingly, similar to scores among the general population.

Dr Robert Wilson, the lead researcher from Rush University in Chicago, said that during the study, 176 people developed Alzheimer's. But those with the highest scores for conscientiousness appeared to have a lower risk than lazier counterparts.

Nuns, priests and monks with scores in the top 10 per cent had an 89 per cent lower risk of developing Alzheimer's than those with scores in the lowest 10 per cent.

The researchers, writing in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry, also found that conscientiousness was associated with a slower rate of mental decline.

But an examination of 324 brains of those who died during the study did not find any link between conscientiousness and signs of the disease. The brains of the conscientious had similar levels of plaques and tangles which build up and cause Alzheimer's as those of the less conscientious.

Dr Wilson said this was not unexpected. He said the trait of being conscientious may just help the brain cope better with the physical causes of Alzheimer's.

However, Professor Clive Ballard, director of research at the Alzheimer's Society, urged caution, saying: "It is important to remember that this study only looked at one group of people and may not translate to the whole population."

Nuns could unlock Alzheimer's mystery

3 Oct 2007