After a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, many people search for purpose. This may be exactly what is needed to slow Alzheimer’ grip on their lives. New evidence suggests a sense of meaning in life can mitigate symptoms of the disease, even when the illness’s harmful plaque has already accumulated in the brain.
Medical researchers have found that a strong sense of purpose and well-being correlates with better physical health, especially in older adults. But now there’s another reason to rethink that stable but meaningless job versus a more meaningful job, life path, or vocation: it appears that a sense that your life has purpose, and that what you do matters, may actually protect your brain from the clinical effects of Alzheimer’s disease.
In a paper coming out this week in the Archives of General Psychiatry, a group of researchers from the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago published the first results of a longitudinal study involving more than 1,400 senior citizens. The goal of the study is to evaluate how a strong sense of purpose in life changes the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease, from a neurobiological perspective. A couple of previous studies (including one by Dr. Patricia A. Boyle, the lead researcher on this study) found a link between a sense of purpose in life and a lower risk of cognitive impairment. But in this study, Dr. Boyle’s team wanted to find out how, neurobiologically, a strong sense of purpose provided that protective effect.
“What distinguishes this from symptomatic research is, you don’t know why something is beneficial until you look at what’s going on in someone’s brain,” Boyle explained. “We can say that physical activity, for example, [is] protective against dementia, because it lowers your risk of developing the clinical side of the disease. But until we know what’s actually happening in someone’s brain, we don’t know how physical activity is working. So the element we added was the measured quantification of the actual changes of Alzheimer’s disease. We’re the first people to look at how purpose in life changes the effect of the Alzheimer’s pathology by measuring in this way.”
The study has been underway since 1997, and none of the study participants presented with signs of dementia when they entered the research group. The participants received baseline assessments in physical, social, psychological and cognitive health at the beginning and then received follow-up assessments every year. Along with those health- and lifestyle-oriented assessments, participants were also rated as to how strong their sense of purpose in life was, based on their range of answers to a 10-point questionnaire.
On the questionnaire, participants are asked to rate, on a five-point scale ranging from “totally agree” to “totally disagree,” their reaction to statements like: “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.” Or, “I enjoy making plans for the future and working them to a reality.”
When the study participants die, their brains are then autopsied to allow the researchers to correlate the physical condition of their brains with the results of each person’s cognitive, physical, psychological and “purpose in life” assessments. So far, 246 individuals in the study have died and had their brains analyzed. And the results are surprising.
From a neurobiological perspective, two of the biggest markers of Alzheimer’s disease are an accumulation of plaque and what neurologists call “tangles” in the pathways of the brain. The researchers did not find any 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 did not. (A strong sense of purpose in life does not, in other words, prevent the accumulation of potentially harmful material in the brain.)
But when the Rush researchers looked at participants whose brains, upon autopsy, had identical levels of plaque and tangles, and then correlated that with how those people had rated in terms of both cognitive functioning and a strong purpose of life — controlling for other factors ranging from overall physical health, exercise, education, and IQ to personality traits and inclinations for depression and other psychological issues — the people 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.
What that means, according to the researchers, is that a strong sense of purpose in life evidently strengthens or provides a higher level of what’s known as “neural reserve” in the brain. “Reserve” is the quality that allows many physiological systems in the human body to sustain what the Rush researchers call “extensive organ damage” before showing clinical deficits. Neurobiologists specializing in aging have already determined that this concept also applies to the human brain, because most of us — regardless of whether we develop clinical symptoms of “Alzheimer’s disease” or not – will accumulate harmful amounts of plaque and tangles in our brains as we age. Autopsies show that. What the Rush researchers’ results indicate is that having a strong sense of purpose in life, especially beyond the age of 80, can give a person’s brain the ability to sustain that damage and continue to function at a much higher level.
Having a sense of purpose can make all the difference in quality of life. Supporting others and living a life of contribution is more important than ever.
How do you contribute?
Comment below or join our conversation on Facebook!