WASHINGTON - The lives of religious sisters not only offer an
example of holy living, but also healthy aging, according to
Several years ago, researcher David Snowdon published a book
often dubbed "The Nun Study" which revealed that women
religious generally live longer than other women.
The 2001 book, Aging with Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches
Us about Leading Longer, Healthier and More Meaningful Lives,
is based on the study of 678 School Sisters of Notre Dame
from a number of U.S. convents.
Snowdon reviewed autobiographies written by the sisters when
they first took their vows and observed the lives of elderly
sisters over a period of 15 years. He also conducted
cognitive and physical tests to test memory and mental
He determined that those who maintained a positive outlook
throughout life and remained mentally and physically active
tended to live longer and avoid Alzheimer's disease.
Although that study is more than a decade old, recent studies
continue to confirm Snowdon's conclusions.
In 2009, Marc Luy of Austria's Vienna Institute of Demography
wrote the "Cloister Study" based on data of 11,624 monks and
nuns from southern Germany. He concluded that one's lifestyle
has a greater impact on aging and lifespan than biological or
Researchers and religious sisters agree that staying active
and positive are the keys to aging well.
Carmelite Sister M. Benedicta, vicar general of the Carmelite
Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus in Sittard, Netherlands,
attributes prayer as the key to aging gracefully.
"Prayer is the foundation," she told Catholic News Service.
"We believe that each soul is simply a capacity for grace of
God's life within us."
She said divine power is "unleashed" in believers and sets
them free to do God's will without "fear of pain,
vulnerability and even death."
"We see our own elderly sisters actively participating in
community prayer, household tasks, corresponding with the
lonely or whatever else they are capable of doing, but never
idle," she said.
Anna Corwin, a doctoral student in anthropology at the
University of California, Los Angeles, also has studied the
aging of religious women, and her results echo previous
Corwin spent 11 months living in a convent, observing how the
lifestyles of women religious affect their aging.
"American Catholic nuns experience greater physical and
emotional wellbeing at the end of life than other women and
are 27 percent more likely to live into their 70s," Corwin
wrote in a 2013 article for Yes! Magazine.
"The remarkable pattern of longevity, joy and peace they
experience in their final years offers insight into how we
can all increase our health and happiness at the end of
life," she said.
One factor, consistent in the studies, is exercise.
"Nuns are always on their feet," Corwin observed, and Snowdon
wrote in his book's conclusion that finding a physical
activity that is enjoyable and doing it regularly is "one of
the best things a person can do to age well."
A positive outlook, maintained through prayer and almsgiving,
also is key.
"Emotions like happiness, fear, anger and sadness affect
heart rate, blood pressure, immune response and even
digestion," wrote Corwin. "Nuns enjoy the benefits of
positive emotions because their daily prayers lead them to
feel love, joy and compassion."
Corwin also noted that most of the time, the sisters' sense
of purpose and willingness to contribute to the world and
help others enhanced quality of life at an older age.
She also credited the sisters' skill in letting go of
attachments, pointing out that when they "move to the
infirmary or to the assisted-living wing of the convent, they
do so with much less strife than lay people."
The lifestyles of women religious, often rooted in prayer,
community and serving others, provide a helpful roadmap to
people who want to be happy and fulfilled in their later
Of course, all these actions are rooted in prayer, as Sister
"As Carmelites, we regard prayer as our first apostolate,"
she said. "So even when we are bedridden nothing keeps us
from this most important duty of interceding for the world."