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Sense of Purpose Seems to Slow Alzheimer's

Last updated: May 11, 2012


Having a sense of meaning and purpose about your life, especially beyond age 80, seems to slow the rate of cognitive decline in those who go on to develop Alzheimer's disease. So finds an innovative long-term study at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

A strong sense of purpose in life seems to strengthen or provide a higher level of "neural reserve" in the brain, reports The Atlantic. This can give your brain the ability to sustain the normal damage of aging and continue to function at a much higher level.

The strength of the findings surprised researchers.

"It's very hard to identify factors that provide reserve, because reserve is a very complex thing," lead researcher Patricia A. Boyle said. "There's lots of bad stuff happening in the brain as people get older, and it's hard to protect against it. So we were excited to find something so positive and so helpful, so beneficial."

The study began in 1997, when none of the 1,400 participants, all older adults, showed signs of Alzheimer's. Researchers assessed various health measures over time, and also asked subjects to rate their sense of purpose in life with questions like these:

  • "I feel good when I think of what I've done in the past and what I hope to do in the future."
  • "I used to set goals for myself, but that now seems like a waste of time."
  • "I live life one day at a time and don't really think about the future."
  • "I enjoy making plans for the future and working them to a reality."

As subjects died (more than 240 of them so far), their brains were analyzed in autopsy for Alzheimer's signs. The researchers found no physical difference in the level of plaque or tangles in the brains of people who rated highly on the purpose of life scale, versus those who didn't. (Most everybody gets some of this damage, though not everybody develops Alzheimer's symptoms.) But after controlling for other factors -- overall physical health, exercise, education, depression, socialization -- the subjects who rated highly on the purpose of life scale had a 30 percent lower rate of cognitive decline, over the whole study period, than those with low scores on the purpose of life scale.

Atlantic writer Lane Wallace quotes John W. Gardner, founder of Common Cause and Experience Corps (who was 76 when he began teaching at Stanford University), on the key to a vital old age: staying interested in life. "Everyone wants to be interesting," he said. "But the vitalizing thing is to be interested. Keep a sense of curiosity. Discover new things. Care. Risk failure. Reach out."

Image by Flickr user Camdiluv, used under a Creative Commons license.

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