Documentaries: 'Heart and Soul' and 'Aging Gracefully'

Sister Celine
Sister Celine Koktan was 96 years old in 2009. She said the Nun Study appealed to her interest in scientific discovery. She hoped researchers will be able to use her brain to find cures for diseases.
Lorna Benson | MPR News 2009

Today, two documentaries about aging.

PART 1: From the BBC: "Heart and Soul" about the sisters in the Mankato, Minn., "Nun Study."

Marie-Louise Muir tells the story of the study, which brought a young epidemiologist together with a group of Catholic Sisters to examine the mysteries of aging and Alzheimer's.

In 1986, Dr. David Snowdon approached the sisters at the convent of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Minnesota, to ask them to take part in a pioneering study to look at Alzheimer's. With their uniform lifestyles, the sisters were perfect for an examination of the aging process. It was the beginning of a study which experts still consider to be one of the most innovative efforts to answer questions about who gets Alzheimer's disease and why.

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A breakthrough came when the Snowdon team came across a filing cabinet full of diaries written by the sisters when they'd entered the order. The team worked out that those sisters who used more complex sentences and ideas were less likely to develop Alzheimer's later on.

As they died, the brain of each sister was analyzed for further information and these samples are now stored at the University of Minnesota along with the brains of other sisters who have continued to participate in this extraordinary longitudinal study.

Included in the documentary are the voices of some of the original Snowdon team as well as neurologists working in the field of Alzheimer's and some of the nuns themselves. Dr. Laura Hemmy of the University of Minnesota is also featured in the documentary.

A Falling Tree Production for BBC World Service.

PART 2: From the Humankind series: "Aging Gracefully," about the lessons of the Okinawa Centenarian Study.

University of Arizona physician Andrew Weil gives his views on healthy longevity in which older people come to accept the challenges and discover the rewards of aging. Dr. Weil says it is important to be "pro-health, not anti-aging."

Dr. Craig Willcox discusses the findings of the Okinawa Centenarian Study. Okinawa, Japan is home to the highest percentage on earth of people who live to be 100. Willcox concludes that the elders of Okinawa are "role models for stress management."

David Freudberg is executive producer and host of the documentary. Produced for Humankind Media in association with WGBH.

To listen to the documentaries, click the audio players above.