Purpose Beats Puzzles Every Time

Photo by sherriwood

We have two great fears about our later years: developing dementia and being lonely. In my experience as a geriatric specialist, I’ve seen that the combination of the two can be crippling.

Many, many scientists are studying both of these circumstances — cognitive decline and loneliness. The research findings are illuminating, helpful and, at times, frustrating.

More than five million Americans have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (AD); 47% of persons over 85 suffer from dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is thought to be the third leading cause of death in persons over 65, behind heart disease and cancer.

My dad showed his first signs of Alzheimer’s disease when he was 49. So, you can imagine, I’m one of the ones a little on edge about the whole thing. Anytime either my brother or I lose our car keys, we call one another and say, “I think it’s starting.”

There is no effective treatment for AD, nor is there a way to prevent it. I had thought that “brain games” sounded so intuitively promising. I was probably paying more attention to the marketing and less to the science. But, when the science caught up with the marketing, 73 world-renowned neuroscientists organized by Stanford University and the Max Planck Institute issued a highly publicized letter in October 2014 debunking the claim that brain training is an effective preventive therapy:

“In summary: We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do.”
And “In the absence of clear evidence, the recommendation of the group, based largely on correlational findings, is that individuals lead physically active, intellectually challenging, and socially engaged lives, in ways that work for them.”

An important observation that is consistent with this advice is shared in work being done by Patricia Boyle, PhD, a neuropsychologist and researcher at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Dr. Boyle is the principal investigator in a study indicating that higher levels of purpose in life 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 plaques and tangles in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

In a related study, it was reported that persons who had a high purpose-in-life score had a 2.4 times lower likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

To summarize:

  • The burden of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline is only worsening as we add years to our expected lifespan;
  • “Brain games” have yet to provide the promised protection against (much less treatment for) cognitive decline;
  • That cloud of disappointment has a silver lining — emerging research points to the power of purpose in life in its association with a much reduced risk (2.4X less!!) of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

At Indigo, we believe that we must expand the research focus in cognitive decline beyond “brain games.”

Face it, puzzles are not the answer.

But, as that research proceeds, it is critical that we pursue the role of purpose not only in its protective effect in Alzheimer’s disease (although that’s reason enough, surely), but its potential to augment the social and intellectual engagement that is recommended as treatment.

It’s time to re-ignite purpose!


This is the third in a series of articles about how we at Indigo think about aging in our culture. We invite discovery of many wonderful things in life, in the belief that purpose in life is the antidote to loneliness. Be part of our community at helloindigo.com

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