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Nun Study participant to speak on Alzheimer’s

By Paul Huggins · 340-2395

Ever had trouble finding your keys and feared it was the onset of Alzheimer’s disease?

Sister Gabriel Mary Spaeth, a participant in one of the largest Alzheimer’s studies, said nearly every adult probably has.

The good news, Spaeth said, is forgetfulness is just a part of growing older and not necessarily a sign of dementia. As long as people remember what the keys are used for, then they have nothing to fear, she said.

Spaeth isn’t a doctor, but the Milwaukee resident has participated in one of the most renowned studies on Alz-heimer’s, known as the Nun Study. She will be in Decatur on March 15 to share stories and knowledge from the study as part of the fifth annual Lucy and John Caddell Alzheimer’s Conference.

Day on dementia

The conference, presented by the Mental Health Association in Morgan County and Decatur General West, will offer a day of dementia-related seminars.

Dr. Richard Powers will talk about understanding dementia and mild cognitive impairment, Krysee Erin Wright will discuss music therapy for helping people with Alzheimer’s and Carol Wallace will give legal advice on planning for long-term care.

Spaeth, 74, a former teacher and principal, was part of the Nun Study from the beginning in 1992. For 15 years she administered mental function and physical function assessments to hundreds of her fellow sisters of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

The study has followed the health of 678 nuns born before 1916 and produced some of the best findings on dementia and brain-related diseases. This included the discovery of a correlation between Alzheimer’s and use of language.

Researchers, led by Dr. David Snowdon, picked the Catholic order because the nuns shared many control factors nearly impossible to duplicate in the general population. They had similar opportunities for health care, nutrition and education for about 60 years, and they had limited use of alcohol and tobacco.

Unlike the public, they also could provide an archived history of the each nun’s early life, such as social and economic backgrounds and family health histories.

And a “gold mine,” Spaeth said, was how researchers regarded the autobiography each nun wrote in her 20s. The stories not only offered important information on their early lives but also revealed linguistic styles for a revolutionary discovery.

They found a correlation between something called “density of ideas” and Alzheimer’s, Spaeth said. She explained idea density refers to the number of ideas within a given number of written words.

“It was sort of an indication that Alzheimer’s is probably something that starts in the brain early on in life, before people would even think its there,” she said.

The purpose of her talk, Spaeth said, is to help people reach their full potential, as has been her teaching order’s long-established mission.

“My hope is to prevent the spread of Alzheimer’s, to do anything that delays its onset, and maybe help a few people not get it,” she said. “To maintain that fullness of life longer because I think there’s nothing as devastating as to have a person with Alzheimer’s just not be their own person anymore.”

Appreciating sacrifices

Spaeth also wants to instill an appreciation for the sacrifices the nuns gave to do the study, and she noted that fewer than 80 of the 678 are still alive.

“One of the conditions was they had to be willing to donate their brain at the time of death,” she said. “That held some back, but close to 70 percent of sisters eligible signed on.”

The conference is named in memory of the Caddells. Mrs. Caddell battled the effects of Alzheimer’s for 17 years. Her husband was her caregiver during that time and, until his death last year, remained a strong supporter of the MHA and its efforts to assist families suffering from Alzheimer’s.

The conference provides continuing education credit for nurses, social workers, nursing home administrators and other health care providers. Lunch and refreshments will be provided.

Anyone can attend the seminars, and organizers advise pre-registering. Cost before March 12 is $35 for individuals and $45 for health professionals. The price increases by $10 after March 12.

For more information, call 353-1160 or e-mail

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