Can a Sense of Purpose Slow Alzheimer’s?

The Atlantic

New evidence suggests a sense of meaning in life can mitigate symptoms of the degenerative disease, even when the illness’s harmful plaque has already accumulated in the brain.  

[…] 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.

“[The results suggest] that purpose in life is either somehow making someone’s brain quicker, brighter, or a faster processor, or it’s somehow contributing to the development of other systems that can come on board to compensate when your systems that support memory, language and those things are being littered with bad stuff,” Boyle said. The researchers were surprised, she added, at just how “robustly protective” a strong sense of purpose in life really was….

Complete article here

Senior Spring


This is a “Senior Spring,” a retired history professor named Silvio Laccetti writes in, describing “a flowering of creativity and participation among older Americans.” Senior citizens are having

a visible and valuable presence in the Occupy Wall Street movement. They are emerging from the isolation of senior-citizen communities, where their voices are muted and mingling with other age groups is nigh impossible. They’re making their presence known in a maelstrom of social action … They are occupying parks and marching in the streets. They are sharing a vast treasury of accumulated knowledge, wisdom, and experience.

Also, they’re old enough not to care very much if younger people approve of their antics or not.

The Occupy movement “seems especially well positioned to take advantage of this trend,” Laccetti says, “because of its leaderless structure, general assemblies open to any and all, and ability to inspire sympathetic splinter movements.”

All true and all good, with this slightly peevish reminder: The Tea Party movement is also leaderless, open to any and all, and able to inspire splinter groups. But coverage of the activities of its seniors seems never quite so giddy. Where the advanced age of Occupiers is cause for celebration (“Wild Old Women Breathe New Life into the Occupy Movement”), the oldsters on the political right get no such respect.

In fact, almost every story ever written about Tea Partiers points out how old they are, with the implication that they are out of touch, care only about themselves and, being retired, have nothing better to do with their time than complain.

Maybe one of the Wild Old Women, bristling at the somewhat condescending coverage her group receives, speaks for all senior activists. “We are not out to be cute,” she says. “We want to be taken seriously, because we are serious.” Hear, hear!