James Le Fanu

‘For every problem there is a solution: neat, plausible and wrong’. H.L.Mencken

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If you want to live longer, start praying

It is a curious irony that nuns, who have the least reason to fear death, and who may even actively yearn to be admitted to God7rsquo;s presence, should live longer than any other group in society. Their remarkable longevity has, in recent years, made them the subject of scientific scrutiny by doctors keen to discover what their secret might be.

For the past 30 years, the Italian physician Mario Timio has been comparing the lives of 144 Benedictine nuns in Umbria with a similar number of healthy lay women who are otherwise similar in every way: non-smokers, not on the pill and sharing the same patterns of food and alcohol consumption. The only measurable difference to emerge has been blood pressure, which in the lay women has, as would be expected, gradually risen, reflecting an age-related loss of elasticity in the arteries. The nuns7rsquo; blood pressure, on the other hand, has remained completely unchanged.

Measure a novice7rsquo;s blood pressure when she enters the order in her late teens, and again several decades later, and it will be exactly the same, hovering around 125/80. You don7rsquo;t get more normal than that.

The only possible explanation for this difference, Dr Cimio suggests, must lie in the ora et labora, prayer and work, of the Benedictine Rule, and the comfort that comes from &dlquo;respecting the rhythms of nature and facing the existential problem with joy&drquo;. In the US, Dr David Snowdon has taken a rather different tack. The 200-strong community of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Minnesota includes an astonishing tally of 48 nonagenarians and seven centenarians, who agreed that Dr Snowdon could examine their brains after they had passed away. His initial intention, sensibly enough, was to try to correlate the mental state of these ancient nuns with the age-related physical changes in their brains. But that is not how things turned out. Time and again, it emerged that the most extreme form of disorganisation of the nerves in the brain was entirely compatible with normal intellectual functioning just before death.

How could this be? Dr Snowdon identified two major factors which echoed the views of Dr Timio. &dlquo;The first is these women7rsquo;s deep spirituality, and the second the power of the community that stimulates their minds, celebrates their accomplishments and encourages their silences.&drquo; So we have a paradox. Many people don7rsquo;t believe in an afterlife, so they want to extend their stay on earth and make the most of their mortal lives. But, it turns out, the most certain way of doing this is to believe so passionately in God that you would not mind dying tomorrow so as to be reunited with Him. I suspect He is having a small joke at our expense.

Copyright: Telegraph Group Ltd