Having a purpose may be the best way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and treat those already affected.
By working toward a goal each day and performing fulfilling, cognitively stimulating tasks, individuals can train their brains to retain memories instead of lose them.
What is a Purpose in Life?
There have been numerous studies conducted on thousands of different patients—those who have been affected by early-onset Alzheimer’s and those who have not.
In these studies, patients were asked about their daily routines and whether they felt as if they had a meaningful life purpose. This was defined as a tendency to gain meaning from their daily experiences and the possession of goal-driven behaviors, though other definitions exist.
In general, patients who stated that they did, in fact, work toward goals that were satisfactory and self-rewarding had better overall cognitive health than those who did not.
A group of 900 relatively healthy individuals from the Chicago area were selected for a study about preventing Alzheimer’s disease. Before the study began, patients were Alzheimer’s-free, and they also answered questions about their purposes in life. During ongoing studies, about 16 percent of the patients were found to have early stages of Alzheimer’s. The individuals who scored the highest on the “purpose in life” test were found to be 2.5 times more likely to remain free of the disease throughout their lives.
The Chicken and Egg Scenario
Although the processes that drive Alzheimer’s are still relatively unknown, scientists and researchers are aware that the development of the disease may begin as many as 10 years before any symptoms are noticed. This early development could mean that symptoms once considered risk factors for Alzheimer’s are actually the early onset of the disease itself. In order to take this into consideration, the scientists who led the studies performed regular brain scans on the participants in order to determine whether risk factors worsened, stayed the same or even improved over time.
Considering Apathetic Behavior
Study participants who fell into the “apathetic” group—those who had a tendency to live life aimlessly instead of according to a plan—were among the most likely candidates for developing Alzheimer’s. Though the reasons for this are still unknown, it is thought that apathetic behavior may not stimulate the brain in a way that is important for the prevention of the disease. On the other hand, some physicians and researchers fall back to the “chicken and egg” scenario, stating that the increased apathy experienced by these individuals as they age may actually be a warning sign or symptom as opposed to a simple risk factor.
The Rush Memory and Aging Project
Researchers at the Rush Memory and Aging Center conducted a similar study (though it contained more control factors). In this study, 155 patients were asked about their general purposes in life, but other control factors — such as existing symptoms of depression, number of supportive friends and family members, prior history of drug use and chronic medical conditions — also were considered.
In this study, a purpose in life was associated with a 52 percent decrease in the likelihood of contracting Alzheimer’s as well as decreased risks for heart attacks and strokes. The patients who did contract Alzheimer’s after the study generally had a pre-existing condition that may have aggravated its development.
Thanks to leading research centers and scientists who have dedicated their lives to the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, new studies are being conducted all the time. Although they may not lead directly to a cure, they do provide valuable insight into the disease, including how it is contracted and how it progresses.
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