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Purpose in Life and Alzheimer's

Researchers identify a potential protector

Older adult celebrating his birthday with friendsPatricia Boyle, PhD, is motivated by at least one purpose in life: figuring out if it would be beneficial for people to find similar meaning from their own pursuits.

Boyle, a researcher at the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center, is the principal investigator in a study indicating that having a greater purpose in life — the degree to which a person derives meaning from life's experiences — may help limit the harmful effects of changes in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

The study, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, found that the benefits of having meaning and direction in life are apparent even when there is evidence of the formation of plaques and tangles in the brain, which are hallmark biological changes that occur in people who develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Many people find meaning in life from activities such as those involving religion, family, exercise or music — anything that allows you to pursue your passions.

"This finding is exciting because it suggests that engaging in meaningful and purposeful activities promotes cognitive health in old age," Boyle says.

Meaningful explanation

Boyle and her colleagues from the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center studied 246 participants from the Rush Memory and Aging Project, a large-scale effort to better understand, treat and hopefully prevent memory, mobility and strength problems associated with aging.

The participants were never diagnosed with dementia, and they subsequently died and their brains were autopsied to determine if plaques and tangles had formed. Before their deaths, they received an annual clinical evaluation for up to 10 years, which included detailed cognitive testing and neurological exams.

Participants also answered questions about purpose in life. The investigators then examined whether purpose in life slowed the rate of cognitive decline even as older adults accumulated plaques and tangles.

Two years ago, Boyle and her team had a similar study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. More than 900 older adults who did not have Alzheimer’s disease took a survey gauging whether they believed there was meaning in their lives.

In follow-ups with the study participants, the researchers found people who had a greater purpose in life had a substantially reduced risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, as well as a reduced risk of the precursor to Alzheimer’s, mild cognitive impairment.

Participants with a score of 4.2 out of 5 on the purpose-of-life scale were roughly 2.4 times more likely to remain free of Alzheimer's than people who scored a 3. The findings were adjusted to control for other variables that may protect against Alzheimer's, such as exercise and social functioning. 

Plans for the future

Much of the ongoing research at the center seeks to identify ways to prevent or limit the accumulation of plaques and tangles in the brain, a task that has proven difficult because the brain changes can’t be detected without an autopsy. Until effective preventive therapies are discovered, other strategies for minimizing the impact of plaques and tangles on cognition are urgently needed.

Research conducted by Boyle and her colleagues suggests helping people find purpose in life may be one such strategy.

"Identifying factors that promote cognitive health even as plaques and tangles accumulate is essential to our goal of combating the already large and rapidly increasing public health challenge posed by Alzheimer's disease," Boyle says.