Understanding what distinguishes people who battle with dementia and Alzheimer’s as they age from those whose mental acuity remains strong well into their 80s, 90s and even older, is a major focus of current psychiatric research. Previous studies have pointed to the potentially protective value of exercise, social support and even language skills. And other studies have also shown that having a strong sense of purpose in life is, unsurprisingly, associated with greater overall mental health, happiness, and even longevity. A study published this week in the Archives of General Psychiatry expands on that research, finding that people who reported feeling a greater sense of purpose in life were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those who reported feeling less fulfilled.
The study, conducted by researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, analyzed medical records and life outlook among 951 participants from the Rush Memory and Aging Project. At the beginning of the study, participants’ overall sense of purpose in life was measured by assessing their level of agreement with 10 statements—such as, “I have a sense of direction and purpose in life,” or “I feel good when I think of what I have done in the past and what I hope to do in the future”—derived from a psychological well-being scale.
After an average of four years of follow-up, 16.3% (155) participants had developed Alzheimer’s disease. When researchers analyzed the relationship between the psychological well-being scale and risk of Alzheimer’s, they found that participants who reported higher levels of fulfillment were significantly less likely to have developed the degenerative mental disease than those who expressed less sense of validation in life. In fact, participants with high scores on the life purpose test were 2.4 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s compared with those who had the lowest scores.
Researchers say that what drives the correlation between reduced risk and heightened sense of purpose is not clear, and should be explored with future research. Still, they expressed optimism at the findings, which add to studies that have linked sense of fulfillment in life everything from better sleep to improved psychological health. What’s more, because a sense of purpose is something that can be cultivated, researchers say that these findings could point toward new treatments designed to improve sense of fulfillment in older adults. If these findings are replicated, they say, “the implications could be far-reaching, and efforts to increase purpose in life may help reduce the rapidly increasing burden of cognitive impairment in old age.”
Perhaps Marlow and Frances Cowan can offer some insight into how to make the most of life as you age. It’s hard to watch the elderly couple’s playful—and impromptu—piano performance in a lobby at the Mayo Clinic without admiring their sense of fulfillment, and breaking into a grin.