From 1967 to 1995, Creighton University conducted a study which became “one of the longest-running, continually supported projects in the history of the National Institutes of Health“. The test subjects were all nuns “representing six mother houses and all between the ages of 35 and 45 when they started” and took part in a study that “literally wrote the book on the operation of the calcium economy in mid-life women”.
For the study, the nuns would eat the same foods in exactly the same portions every day for eight days. The diets were designed to match, within 5 percent, their usual food intake in terms of calories, protein, calcium and phosphorus. Creighton researchers then meticulously gathered data to identify factors that influenced how the women’s bodies absorbed calcium, utilized it and excreted it.
Among the findings resulting from the Creighton research: Healthy adult women in midlife require 1,200 milligrams of calcium each day; and calcium absorption is influenced by such factors as body size, vitamin D, estrogen levels, age, race, calcium source and other nutrient interactions.
Though the study officially ended in 1995, the nuns “now in their 70s and 80s – continue coming to Creighton for calcium absorption measurements and bone-density scans.”
The findings have greatly increased science’s understanding in the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis.
Other studies involving nuns have been well documented. In 1986, David Snowdon, Ph.D. spearheaded a pilot program to investigate brain diseases in the elderly to “determine the causes and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, other brain diseases, and the mental and physical disability associated with old age”.
Each of the 678 participants in the Nun Study agreed to participate in annual assessments of their cognitive and physical function, medical exams, blood drawing for genetic and nutritional studies, and brain donation at death for neuropathologic studies. The Nun Study represents the largest brain donor population in the world. In addition, the sisters have given investigators full access to their convent and medical records.
Since many Alzheimer’s patients are unable to provide accurate information regarding their past, due to the pronounced memory loss associated with the disease, these convent records provide an invaluable tool to study the long term health factors in each patient.
All in all, studies such as these, and others, allow scientists to further our medical understanding in the hopes of increasing the quality of life for all of us. Too often we hear about the divisions between science and faith, but there are probably many, many more stories about the two disciplines working together for a greater good.