Signs of Alzheimer's disease show up early in life, decades before it destroys the mind, a study that included nuns in St. Louis suggests.
The findings may help people at risk for Alzheimer's take steps to lower their chances of getting the disease, just as millions of Americans now take cholesterol-lowering medications to prevent heart disease.
In a study published in today's issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers at the University of Kentucky report that linguistic ability in early life is strongly related to the risk for Alzheimer's disease.
The investigators have been studying 678 members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame religious congregation. All the nuns were born before 1917 and have agreed to donate their brains at death. About 110 nuns from the St. Louis area are participating.
The researchers studied one-page handwritten autobiographies written by 93 of the nuns when they entered the religious order. About 60 years later, the nuns were assessed for cognitive function. The brains of 25 nuns who died were analyzed to determine the number and location of Alzheimer's disease lesions.
"Those sisters with low linguistic ability in early life had a very high risk of Alzheimer's disease in late life, and abundant Alzheimer's disease lesions in their brains," said David Snowdon, who is with the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and is director of the study.
"One possibility is that low linguistic ability in early life may be an early expression of the Alzheimer's disease process," he said. "While it may seem incredible that subtle symptoms of the disease would be expressed in 20-year-olds, other autopsy studies indicate that the lesions of Alzheimer's disease may develop over a 50-year period."
Alzheimer's disease is a degenerative brain disorder that slowly robs people of their memory. Today it afflicts more than 4 million Americans. There is no cure.
The nuns are a good group to study because they have …