A recent study shows elderly people with purpose and meaning in life avoid Alzheimer's and cognitive decline. The Rush Medical Center, funded in part by the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health, studies issues relating to dementia and Alzheimer's disease. The studies seek to find workable, practical ways to prevent these debilitating diseases. One study by Dr. Patricia Boyle, the principal investigator in this study, focuses on whether finding meaning in life can stave off Alzheimer's.
The researchers define a purpose in life as the context in which a person gleans meaning from life's activities. Purpose or meaning in life turns out to be a protective brain factor against Alzheimer's. The results of a preliminary study were published in Archives of General Psychiatry in 2010. Dr. Boyle and her team found that having meaning and purpose in life at an old age substantially reduced the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. It even warded off mild cognitive impairment.
Some elderly participants died during the longitudinal study. Brain autopsies revealed that some had plaques and tangles in their brains. Yet, despite the physical signposts of dementia in their brains, people who found purpose in their lives did not develop dementia.
Dr. Boyle's preliminary study focused on community-dwelling older adults and concluded: "Greater purpose in life is associated with a reduced risk of AD (Alzheimer's Disease) and MCI (Mild Cognitive Impairment) in community-dwelling older persons."
For more than a decade more than 1,000 elder persons participated in the study.
Each year participants were given 21 tests to gauge cognitive mettle. The purpose or meaning of life quotient was also measured. Assessment relied on a 10-item scale adapted from tests of psychological well-being. The test included the Likert measuring system of rating on a 5-point scale of the strength of the person's agreement or disagreement with statements.
The researchers considered other physical and psychological symptoms that might be at play. They tested the subjects for depression, neuroticism, and physical disability. However, the dementia link stood strong. People with a purpose in their lives withstood even depression, neuroticism, lack of social networks, and chronic medical conditions, and also defied dementia.
Variables such as age, family, marital status and others were also taken into account, and the results stood. A person with a high score on the purpose in life measure was 2.4 times more likely to remain free of Alzheimer's than a person with a low score. The purpose in life also had a significant link to a reduced risk of even mild cognitive impairment.
Having a purpose in life seems to sharpen the mind. Those who scored high on purpose or meaning in life began the study at higher cognitive levels than those who did not score high.
The researchers' concluded: "These findings suggest that the tendency to derive meaning from life's experiences and to possess a sense of intentionality and goal directedness are associated with a substantially reduced risk of AD (Alzheimer's) and a less rapid rate of cognitive decline in old age."
The researchers emphasized that it is becoming clear that psychological factors can increase the risk for cognitive decline. Factors such as being neurotic, lonely, socially isolated, and depressed increase risk. At the same time, being diligent, extroverted and socially integrated decrease risk. Yet, having a purpose in life trumps all.
What does this mean for seniors and their caregivers? Interpreting life so as to find meaning and purpose in activities-or finding activities that lend life such meaning-is important. For example, one elderly man who lived into his nineties attributed longevity to the fact that he attended church daily and prayed for his country and family members. This mission gave him a reason to rise, get dressed, and go about his day with a will.
Many find purpose in activities involving religion, family, the arts, exercise-activities of self-efficacy and growth. Research indicates that such purpose prolongs life and staves off mental decline, including Alzheimer's and even Mild Cognitive Impairment.
Boyle, P. A., Buchman, A. S., Barnes, L. L., Bennett, D. A. (March 2010). Effect of a Purpose in Life on Risk of Incident Alzheimer Disease and Mild Cognitive Impairment in Community-Dwelling Older Persons. Archives of General Psychiatry, 67(3):304-310. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2897172/. Accessed March 24, 2017.
Rush University Medical Center. The purpose in Life and Alzheimer's. Available at https://www.rush.edu/health-wellness/discover-health/purpose-life-and-alzheimers. Accessed March 24, 2017.
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