Can a Purposeful Life Stave off Alzheimer's?

Contributed by: Dennis Fortier, President, Medical Care Corporation

Headlines stating that a purposeful life can stave off Alzheimer's disease are all over the media this week. The frenzy has been sparked by a study out of Rush University Medical Center and published in Archives of General Psychiatry.

In the study of 951 older people without dementia, respondents were asked to indicate how much they agreed or disagreed with statements about their happiness and sense of purpose in life. After an average follow-up of about four years, researchers noted that those respondents who indicated more purposeful lives were less likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's and had slower rates of cognitive decline.

The potential to overstate this conclusion becomes obvious if we reverse the headline. Rather than asking "Can a purposeful life stave off Alzheimer's?" we could ask "Does Alzheimer's prevent a purposeful life?" Given the long incubation period of the disease, during which the brain is degrading without visible symptoms, it is plausible to draw the opposite conclusion. That is, perhaps the presence of undetected, early-stage Alzheimer's disease prevents people from pursuing full and "purposeful" lives.

The data in this study are equally supportive of each conclusion but one perspective yields better headlines.

I think most of the stories about this study, including this one in the US News & World Report, are presented fairly. However, the headlines I have seen have been generally misleading in terms of how they imply a causal relationship between a purpose-driven lifestyle and a resulting benefit in cognitive health.


  1. "Does Alzheimer's prevent a purposeful life?" Point well taken.

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