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Springfield Nuns Participate In Memory Loss Study

Rachel Otwell
researcher Woodie Mogaka tests Sister Ann Clennon's memory recall

A group of nunsin Springfield is participating in a long-term medical study. For those involved, it’s another way to serve others.


Sister Ann Clennon is sitting in a pink bedroom - one of the many at the Sacred Heart Conventthat are home for her and over 100 other sisters. This room is unique though - it's being used to evaluate her memory and that of 32 others. They are part of an effort from Rush University Medical Center based in Chicago to continue Alzheimer's research that's been going on since the mid-nineties. Sister Clennon says she decided to participate after: "A lot of reflection and a lot of nudging by God. I fought it pretty hard but in the end I gave in, and I'm happy that I did." Sister Clennon is 69 years old, ultimately, she made the choice to participate because, "I have family history of Alzheimer's. My mom died of Alzheimer’s ten years ago today and my sister Beth is currently living with early-onset Alzheimer's, she's six years younger than I am."

This study is party of a larger project across the country. Many of those involved are in other religious communities, which are ideal populations to study because they are easy to track and have similar lifestyles and environments.

Rush University Medical Center’s Alzheimer’s Disease Centergets it funding for the research from the National Institute on Aging and hopes to continue its look at how genes, environment, psychological and medical factors effect memory indefinitely. It's already resulted in finding links - like how surgical menopause, for instance: hysterectomies in women that result in menopause, are associated with an increased risk for the disease.

Woodie Mogaka is a research assistant for Rush University. He says participants are studied on a consistent, life-long basis. "Because certain types of dementias are either slow-progressing or fast-progressing we come out every year and still try and test. Unfortunately there have been people who are in the later stages of Alzheimer's and really can not test, but we still go out and talk with them and try to get as much information as possible." The nuns have agreed to donate their bodies post-death so that their pathology can be studied as well.

Before Mogaka can begin the memory tests, which measure short-term and long-term memory and involve word and story recall, the nuns have blood taken and do questionnaires about medical and family history. Their personality and psychology are also evaluated. Irene Condon is one of the RNs/research coordinators who perform the various procedures. "With the neurologic assessment we test their reflexes, so there's a reflex hammer. And then we check what we call finger-tapping, and for ten seconds we see how fast they can tap with a finger and it tells us about coordination. We test their hand strength and also the strength of their thumb on a pinch gauge," she says.

The hope is that these efforts will lead to practical ways to combat and prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s, a disease that is the 6th leading cause of death in the country and affects more than 5 million US citizens, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Cases are growing and expected to increase rapidly as the baby boomer generation ages. It's a disease Sister Ann Clennon is all too familiar with. After seeing both her mother and sister Beth suffer, she says the victims include family and friends who must helplessly watch the decline of their loved ones. Still, her faith gives her solace and hope, and she says - so does participating in this research. "I know it's not going to help Beth ... But it's something I can do to maybe help another person somewhere down the line so that their family doesn't have to deal with this."The Dominican Sisterscan now add their participation in what's called the 'Religious Orders Study' to a long list of ways they serve their community and try to change the world for the better.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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