As it stands today, the number of adults suffering from Alzheimer’s disease is projected to double by 2020.
The rise in Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline has led some health professionals to call the current prevalence of dementia the “Alzheimer’s epidemic.” In light of this, doctors, healthcare professionals, and individuals around the world have been working tirelessly for years to develop approaches that could slow or prevent the development of Alzheimer’s.
One of the few things that has shown promise, however, is far less scientific than you may think.
According to recent studies, having a sense of purpose or meaning in life has the potential to slow the effects of dementia and cognitive decline.
Read on to learn more.
The Rush University Medical Center Study
One of the leading studies on this topic came from Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center. Here, scientists have been conducting a long-term study on seniors (more than 1,500 of them) since 1997. For the purposes of this study, all seniors were not affected by dementia at the time the research began.
Throughout the course of the study, each participating senior was given a yearly check-up that assessed their physical, mental, and cognitive health and well-being. In addition, each senior was asked questions designed to measure his or her sense of purpose and meaning in life. Each question was graded on a scale of 1-5.
The people who scored the highest points on these questions were ranked as having a strong sense of purpose in life, while the people with low scores had a weak sense of purpose or no sense of purpose at all.
Over the study’s active years, 246 of the study’s more than 1,500 participants died, and their brains were evaluated for signs of Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline – specifically the plaques and tangles that can so often create memory loss and cognitive difficulties.
Of the participants who died during the course of the study, the ones with a high sense of purpose were as likely to have evidence of physical brain changes as the participants with a low sense of purpose, although they scored much higher on tests that measured things like thinking and memory.
As a result, the study concluded that people who have a strong sense of purpose in life are generally better protected from the effects of Alzheimer’s than their purpose-less counterparts.
Keep in mind that, while developing a sense of purpose will not cure or guarantee the avoidance of Alzheimer’s, this research goes to show that the positive brain effects associated with having a sense of meaning in life may go a long way toward protecting the brain from memory loss and cognitive decline.
Why a Sense of Purpose Helps to Slow Alzheimer’s
While the studies suggesting that a sense of meaning in life can slow Alzheimer’s are promising, few people understand how, exactly, a sense of purpose does this. Here are a few of the current theories:
A sense of purpose improves “neural reserve.”
Neural reserve is a term used to refer to the brain’s resistance to damage. When a human brain has a high level of neural reserve through connections and activity, it is less susceptible to damage than a brain with lower levels of connections and activity. Because the brains of people with a pronounced sense of purpose have a high level of neural reserve, they’re less vulnerable to the effects of Alzheimer’s than brains with lower neural reserves.
Having a sense of purposes improves the brain’s processing power.
Scientists have known for years that learning new things and maintaining social relationships is good for brain health, and a large part of the benefit of having a sense of purpose could just be that it encourages both of these things. If a senior feels as if volunteering in a homeless center is his or her sense of purpose, for example, that senior is more likely to take courses, meet new people, attend events, and interact socially than a house-bound senior with no sense of purpose.
The brain performs best when it is put to work.
According to an article published in The Atlantic on the topic, the human brain works the best when it is engaged in meaningful and exciting work. When seniors remain interested in the stimulus and experiences around them, they keep their minds active, curious, and flexible. This, in turn, creates a neural environment in which cognitive decline and dementia are less likely to thrive.
How Seniors Can Develop a Sense of Purpose: 4 Tips
While some seniors have an intrinsic sense of purpose, others must work to develop it. When you take into account the neuroprotective benefits of doing so, however, it immediately becomes clear that it’s well worth the effort. Here are several tips for seniors who want to develop their sense of purpose to the fullest:
1. Experiment with volunteering
Volunteering is a great way to build and maintain a sense of purpose, and it’s something that virtually all seniors can do. Most organizations are hungry for volunteers, and the possibilities are virtually endless.
Try reading to children at a local library or serving meals in a local soup kitchen. Donate your time to meals on wheels to help other seniors or consider working in advocacy or outreach for a women and children’s shelter.
The level of volunteering you choose to undertake will depend largely on your energy, spare time, and interests, but if you find something you truly love you may find that volunteering quickly gives you the sense of purpose you’ve been looking for.
2. Get involved with a friend’s organization
If a friend or family member has something they feel passionately about, consider looking for ways to get involved. In many ways, this kills two birds with one stone. In addition to helping you keep your social life active and dynamic, it also exposes you to new causes you may or may not feel passionate about.
3. Refer back to what you wanted to do as a child
As children, we all have great loves we forget as adults. If you’re struggling to find a purpose in life, try going back to these childhood passions. Maybe you wanted to be an artist or work with animals.
Maybe you wanted to be an astronaut or travel to exotic places. Whatever your childhood passions may have been, they can be useful tools for helping you to find your passion and purpose as an adult.
4. Keep exploring
Sometimes, finding your purpose in life is harder than it sounds, and you may have to look for quite a while to find something you feel excited about.
Don’t let this dissuade you. It’s well worth the time and effort it takes to find something you love, and doing so can go a long way toward protecting your brain and enriching your life throughout your golden years.
The Case for a Sense of Purpose
A sense of purpose may sound like a lofty idea, but it’s actually a hugely important factor in living a healthy, dementia-free life. Because a passion or a sense of purpose keeps seniors alert, engaged, and curious, it can help to protect the brain from the ravaging effects of Alzheimer’s Disease.