The United States is currently experiencing the early stages of what is expected to be an epidemic of Alzheimer’s Dementia. It is predicted that the current number of cases of Alzheimer’s Dementia will double by 2020, and double again by 2040. Some unfortunate individuals are born with genes that strongly predispose them to developing Alzheimer’s Dementia. However, this is true for only a minority of people. The familial, early onset form of Alzheimer’s Dementia, which is so strongly linked to genetic abnormalities, is responsible for about five percent of cases of this illness. There is compelling evidence that the rest of us can escape, or at least postpone or diminish the severity of Alzheimer’s, by improving our diets, maintaining our health and generally living healthier lifestyles. In most cases, it appears Alzheimer’s Dementia can be avoided.
An under-appreciated but scientifically substantiated fact is that getting a good education, challenging your mind, maintaining friendships and staying socially active can also help reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s Dementia in later life. A new report in the American Medical Association journal, Archives of General Psychiatry, now compliments those findings in showing that simply having a sense of purpose in life can help to reduce this risk.
This new study was performed by Patricia Boyle, Ph.D and her group at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. The participants in the study were 951 men and women with an average age of 80.4 years, who had normal cognitive function at the start of the study. That is, none had yet shown signs of developing Alzheimer’s Dementia. In the study they defined purpose in life as, “The psychological tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences and to possess a sense of intentionality and goal directedness that guides behavior.” In other words, that your life means something and that you have a sense of control of it. They measured the sense of purpose in life by tallying up scores from a 10 item questionnaire that was given to the subjects in the test.
The questionnaire included questions such as: “I have a sense of direction and purpose in life”, and ” I sometimes feel as if I have done all there is to do in life.” Participants answered questions on a scale of one to five, and agreement with optimistic, positive questions such as the first, added points while disagreement with the more pessimistic questions, such as the second one, also added points. They found that individuals with a sense of purpose at the start of the study were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s Dementia over the following seven years. In fact, it was shown that people with the lowest sense of purpose in life were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s Dementia than those with the highest sense of purpose. The authors of the study recognized that factors such as depression, education, number of friends and family, gender, and race can and do affect ones risk for developing Alzheimer’s Dementia. These factors were measured and analyzed in the study. They determined that even when all of these other important social and psychological factors were considered, a simple sense of purpose in life made its own unique, and statistically significant contribution to reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s Dementia.
Healthy diet, good sleep and exercise are often seen as the “natural way” to keep the mind healthy and avoid dementia. This is rightfully so. It is certainly the case that diabetes, heart disease, obesity, sleep apnea, and vitamin deficiencies are risk factors for Alzheimer’s that can be prevented or treated. However, we often neglect the fact that having healthy attitudes and emotions, stimulating our minds with education and challenging work, and maintaining social interactions with other people are also important in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s dementia.
Research has shown that people that have long histories of Major Depression are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s Dementia than those that do not. Reduction of stress further decreases the likelihood of dementia. Indeed, studies have shown that people who describe themselves as calm, relaxed, and self-satisfied can reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s by one half. The East Boston study showed that every year of education after high school reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s by 17 percent. A study at Duke University showed that having intellectually challenging work in adult life can reduce the risk of dementia even further beyond what a good education alone can do. In the Honolulu-Asia Aging Study it was found that maintaining friendships in later life significantly improves the likelihood of avoiding dementia. Another interesting study found that people already diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Dementia who have large social networks of family and friends can maintain better cognitive function, even with higher levels of amyloid plaque damage in their brains, than can those without such social support. Scientific studies have also shown that people with deeply held religious beliefs and dedication to religious practices, regardless of the type, have a slower rate of cognitive decline when Alzheimer’s dementia is already diagnosed. The current study now adds to this list of things we can do and ways we can approach life that can reduce our risk of dementia. Having a sense of purpose in life can reduce this risk.
Along with a looming epidemic of Alzheimer’s Dementia, our country is also facing a crisis in access to health care and controlling the ever increasing costs of this care. In the United States in 2005, the annual Medicare payments for the care of patients with dementia were over $91 billion. These are expected to increase to over $160 billion in this year of 2010. It is time that we return to simple, inexpensive, but effective measures to reduce the numbers of people who develop Alzheimer’s, as well as to reduce the enormous financial burden on our country and families. Thus, the most important part of the finding that a sense of purpose can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s may be one that was not mentioned by the authors of the study. What they might have mentioned is the fact that a strong sense of purpose in life is absolutely free.