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One of the most interesting and promising areas of study concerning Alzheimer’s disease is the so-called Nun Study.  Epidemiologist, David Snowden, began studying the memory and cognitive abilities of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in the mid-1980s.  This population was ideal for his study due to their shared lifestyle over a long period of time.  Many of the nuns agreed to donate their bodies to medical research upon their deaths and subsequent brain examinations led to fascinating results.

Snowden discovered multiple cases of women who lived well into their 90s with little or no outward signs of dementia, and yet, their brains contained severe vascular lesions and showed indications of significant Alzheimer’s disease.  What can explain the discrepancy between the lack of symptoms and clear neurological damage?

There are various theories but the consensus that has formed over the last twenty years is that lifelong learning activities train more functional synapses, form more neural connections, and build more cognitive reserve.  Altogether, this creates redundancy and backup connections to fall back on as the brain is damaged.  The benefits of physical activity and exercise in combating the deterioration associated with aging is well known.  We can make similar claims regarding the fight against cognitive decline.  It would seem to be a case of use it or lose it.

A Lifelong Learning Opportunity

I recently took a class at GLI titled How to Read and Interpret the Bible Today.  This would be the first class that I have taken for a grade and taught by a college professor since completing my masters degree sixteen years ago. It has been even longer than that since I took a formal class that did not contain differential equations, thermodynamics, or chemical kinetics.  Yes, I’m an engineer and a nerd, and theology is a bit of a different area of academic discipline than I’m used to exercising.  So, I entered the classroom wondering a bit if I had made a wise choice.  On the other hand, the situation could not have been more welcoming.

My Life Group decided to take this course together, so I already knew most of the students.  The textbook was accessible yet full of helpful information and Dr. Chris Ansberry was a great teacher who displayed a wealth of knowledge while modulating his presentation to address the backgrounds, needs, and knowledge of the students.  I do not intend to spend many more words on a review of the course.  Jael Lippert had written a wonderful blog post to this end a couple months ago.  Rather, I’d like to describe my experience during the class in hopes that others may find it useful and perhaps uncover another reason to take a course at GLI. 

I have certainly experienced blessings from individual quiet time with scripture reading, and yet, I often feel like the Ethiopian Eunuch who Philip encountered on the road between Jerusalem and Gaza in Acts chapter 8.  Philip found him reading from the prophet Isaiah and asked if he understood what he was reading.  The eunuch replied, “how can I, unless someone guides me”? Yes, there are study bibles, commentaries, and expository sermons available online.  Yet, this can leave us overwhelmed by a paralysis that comes from having too many choices to select from.

Additionally, the one-way communication flow inherent with these resources can still leave us frustrated as we wrestle with questions and doubts.  The practice of meeting in small groups helps to alleviate this problem to an extent but even there we can bump into the limits of the group’s knowledge and discernment.  This is perhaps the aspect of the class that I enjoyed the most.  We attended as a Life Group who were already comfortable and familiar with each other.  There is a very low fear of asking dumb questions when surrounded by those you already know and love.  Adding a knowledgeable, generous, and sensitive teacher to this dynamic made the experience rewarding, and frankly, fun.  I highly recommend others consider signing up for GLI courses as a group.  It is a wonderful experience. 

I am also glad that I elected to take the class for a grade as compared to auditing.  The requirement to formulate written reflections on readings from the textbook forced me to be more contemplative and provided for extended interactions with the instructor.  It may have been well over a decade since my last similar level of academic pursuit, yet it felt good to stretch those old mental muscles.  It was somewhat analogous to the feeling I get when I go for my first bike ride in the spring.  All my good intentions of keeping up my stamina over the winter months on a stationary bike are never fully realized.  So, inevitably that first spring ride is a bit of a slog.  Muscles have atrophied and my back and legs have stiffened, and that first mile always feels bitterly cold.  But, by five miles in, the endorphins start to flow, the sun feels wonderful on my face, and the stiffness melts away.

Similarly, writing an expository essay felt good and I look forward to doing it again.  When the Pharisees asked Jesus about the great commandment He responded with the exhortation to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”.  My attention was recently drawn to Christ’s inclusion of our minds in this command.  I have struggled at times to find ways to integrate a life of the mind with my faith journey.  This course at GLI helped me to see a vision of that, more so, than any resource I’ve engaged with in a long time.  Perhaps you may find academic exercises through a GLI course helps you to stretch some old mental muscles too.  Maybe it can help you to find new ways to integrate your mind into your walk of faith as well.  After all, the School Sisters of Notre Dame helped us to see that the benefits of such mental exercises can stretch over a lifetime.

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This post was contributed by Rob Mischler