Research done by Memory and Aging Project at Rush offers hope in fight against disease.
Charlotte Morrison loves to walk, practice tai chi and paint with watercolors.
Morrison, 83, finds meaning in helping others who live with her in the Bethlehem Woods Retirement Community in LaGrange Park to express themselves. “Every morning, I ask myself, ‘How can I help someone today?’ My purpose in life is to help people,” she said.
Morrison worked with developmentally disabled children and adults for 32 years, then cared for her husband for seven years before he died.
After Alzheimer’s diseasetook his life, she joined the Memory and Aging Project at Rush University Medical Center, about 3 1/2 years ago. “I will do anything to help anyone figure out Alzheimer’s. Now research is coming up with real results, finding ways of helping people live better with Alzheimer’s. It’s an honor to be part of something like this,” Morrison said.
Some of this research, including a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry’s May issue, has found that having a purpose in life can help protect individuals from health problems, including Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive disorders. The term “purpose in life” is defined as the tendency to be intentional, to engage in behaviors that one wants to engage in and thinks are important, said lead investigator Patricia A. Boyle, a neuropsychologist with the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center and associate professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences.
“(The research) is exciting. It suggests possible behaviors that everyone can strive toward and that promote cognitive health. People are asking what they can do to prevent Alzheimer’s, to maintain cognitive function. Find things that are meaningful and that help you feel life is purposeful,” Boyle said.
Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, with 1 in 8 older adults, and 5.4 million individuals, suffering from it, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include loss of memory and thinking ability and functional changes, including reducing the ability to care for oneself.
Boyle and her colleagues looked at information from 246 of the more than 1,500 older individuals enrolled in the Rush Memory and Aging Project, which began in 1997. It studies chronic aging conditions among those living in the Chicago area. For up to about a decade, participants had yearly clinical evaluations, with neurological and cognitive testing.
Participants tended to be older, with an average age of about 80, and began the study without showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Once a year, they were asked to rate themselves on the answers to certain questions, including how much meaning they derived from life’s activities and whether they were goal-directed or purposeful.
“We found that for two people with a similar amount of Alzheimer’s changes, the one with higher purpose in life did much better with cognitive function over time,” Boyle said.
After the participants died, brain autopsies were performed on them. The researchers then looked at the plaques and tangles that had formed in their brains. Plaques and tangles are protein deposits associated with Alzheimer’s disease. “They prevent brain cells from communicating effectively with each other,” Boyle said.
“There is increasing evidence that almost everyone has some amount of plaques and tangles,” she said.
With this information in mind, the idea becomes helping people to cope and still do well, perhaps by developing a purpose, Boyle said.
“Purpose in life is something everyone can work toward,” she said.
It is part of an overall sense of well-being, including contributing to society, being a productive person, having goals and a knowledge of what’s important to you, working toward those goals and contributing to the world, Boyle said.
The daily challenges one faces, including working to pay the bills, can make it difficult to maintain a focus on how people are spending their “most important resource — time,” she said.
“I recommend that people think of their priorities. Think of what’s important and meaningful to you, and move in that direction,” Boyle said.
These activities could include spending time with family, and, perhaps doing a different kind of work. “These bring a sense of wellness that is protective. Studies are showing that this promotes health,” she said.
Morrison said her work at Bethlehem Woods as an advocate is consistent both with her earlier work as a teacher for the developmentally disabled and her work with Alzheimer’s research.
“I want everybody’s grandchildren to not have Alzheimer’s,” she said. “I think that people in general know people who’ve had Alzheimer’s. We are hoping that it’s something that can be cured. I think they are getting on the right track.”
Citation: Tobacman, Jessica. “Having purpose in life helps fight Alzheimer’s, study finds.” Chicago Tribune. Chicago Tribune, 2012. Web. 22 May 2012. http://www.chicagotribune.com/health/ct-x-alzheimers-purpose-in-life-20120523,0,6856063.story