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Pentecostal moments in long-term care: Part 2

August 6, 2012
by V. Tellis-Nayak, PhD
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The first installment of “Pentecostal Moments in Long-Term Care” offered ethnographic snapshots of the wondrous effects of religion in advanced age. Researchers have examined how precisely religion affects the neurons in our brain and shapes our social behavior. The first baby-steps on this unchartered journey have led to discoveries both puzzling and enlightening.

Alzheimer’s, the disease that assaults our humanity, victimizes one out of ten by age 65; it takes a toll of one in two after age 85. In longitudinal studies almost a third of elderly who die show they had asymptomatic Alzheimer's—i.e., although their brains showed amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, typical of Alzheimer's, in life, these patients suffered no memory loss—the classic symptom of the disease. The brain-reserve hypothesis explains this phenomenon: Just as exercise helps trained athletes to resist arthrosclerosis, active and sharper minds develop enlarged neurons that resist the degeneration of the brain.

What promotes brain health? Religion surely does, in ways direct and indirect, subtle and mysterious; religion alters brain activity among the elderly, it affects emotions and changes behavior. Hard-nosed research at Harvard, Duke, Stanford and other notable centers has opened doors to the vast uncharted universe of the human brain. Early findings inspire awe, raise spiritual questions and offer practical advice.

  • Satisfaction in life adds years to life. Across all faiths, elderly that attend more religious services enjoy greater life satisfaction and a longer life.
  • Elderly that practice religion slow the decline of pulmonary function.
  • Human brains shrink with age; different regions in the brain shrink at different rates. Religious practice retards atrophy in the hippocampus and  slows  the progression of Alzheimer's disease.
  • Church attendance encourages mutual support among attendees, eases stress, boosts emotional health and confers a host of positive benefits.
  • Religion encourages transcendence and altruism. Elderly who give of themselves, who serve and help others, lower their risk of mortality.

With age, our words and cognitive ability fade, but symbols of faith continue to elicit responses.  Caregivers have for long found simple ways to reach beyond the sound barriers erected by short-term memory loss, and to awaken long buried experiences. Where words fail, comforting religious prayers and the touch, feel and smell of revered, familiar objects effectively communicate the message. The thousand bedside victories of the use of evocative religious symbolism make redundant its scientific validation.

  • Catholic: Crucifix, rosary, scapular, sacred heart badge, statue of Mary, prayer cards for: The Lord’s Prayer, 23rd Psalm, Ten Commandments, Apostle’s Creed, Hail Mary, Magnificat, mysteries of the Holy Rosary and prayer to the Sacred Heart.
  • Protestant: Bible (New King James Version), cross, traditional picture of Jesus, prayer cards for: The Lord’s Prayer, 23rd Psalm, Ten Commandments and Numbers 6: 24-26.
  • Jewish: Prayer book, yarmulkes, tallit, mezuzah, Star of David, Kiddush cup and candlesticks.


Alzheimer’s research made a giant leap forward in the 1990s. David Snowdon thought he was in researchers’ heaven. He found a population group more ideally suited for Alzheimer’s research than he had hoped for in his most uninhibited fantasy. The group he found was racially homogeneous and helpfully it ranged from ages 50 to well over 100; the members shared common beliefs, followed a common life style, practiced a common profession and used a common healthcare plan—a perfect group free of variations that complicate a researcher’s life.

Professor Snowdon had befriended the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND), Catholic nuns, in Mankato, Wis. The SSNDs had agreed to participate in a longitudinal Alzheimer’s study. He now faced a final, formidable task. He had to ask the sisters: Would they, upon death, donate their brains for the cause of science? Snowdon drew on his own Catholic experience and reverentially made the request; he addressed their religious concerns including the teary question of a young nun: If afflicted, would Alzheimer’s make her forget God?

In a consummate act of religious altruism, the SSNDs, dedicated to teaching, decided to push their mission beyond the grave and continue to be teachers. 670 of them from convents around the nation offered their brains for the study. 

The humble, unobtrusive act of transcendence was too momentous to stay hidden. The news spread out of Mankato and announced to the world on the cover of Time magazine and in headlines around the globe: “Nuns donate their brains to Alzheimer's research.”

The progress of the research proved as historic as its beginning. Its early success drew more research dollars. Rush University launched new studies which attracted many and diverse volunteers. Quite a number came from Catholic religious orders, like the Congregation of St. Joseph in La Grange Park, Ill. They agreed to annual tests to record changes in memory till death and to have their brains autopsied after death. 

The brains, more than 850 of them, along with a rich, detailed clinical history gleaned from tests and physical exams over the years have launched an army of investigators who at this very moment are busy tracking the onset and progress of the curse that threatens our personhood. Their early findings speak to us as private persons and as healthcare professionals.