I used to work for the Alzheimer’s Association and I know they spend a lot of time fundraising for a cure for this disease and a lot of the money goes into pharmaceutical research, which is a good thing because anyone who is dealing with this disease desperately wants and deserves a worthwhile treatment and cure! But my job (and the job I had later at Del Mar Caregiver Resource Center) was to work directly with the families, and that work led me to some deep inner questioning because I tended to hear the same three stories (or variations) over and over again.
- “Grandma was perfectly all right until grandpa died.”
- “Grandpa was perfectly alright until he retired and didn’t know what to do with himself anymore.”
- “So and so has never been completely alright—she’s always been somewhat depressed—but now that she's living alone, things have really gone south: she has full- blown Alzheimer’s.”
I hope that in this post you will read something new and that it will inspire you to make a change in your life or in the life of someone you love. First, I’m going to tell you about how important this is. Then I’ll share just a little about the science related to Alzheimer’s Disease so you understand what drug researchers have been focusing on and then a very famous study that seems to contradict the science. I’ll talk about recent studies that might point to social solutions. And I’ll end with helping you think about how easy solutions like that could be and ask you to start with one simple thing I hope you’ll do with your family or friends tonight.
Let’s start with why this is important.
Alzheimer’s Disease has an enormous impact on our country.
There's a LOT I could say about this, so I'm going to point you to the latest statistics from the Alzheimer's Association for a start, but here are just a few points that definitely concern me!
- The likelihood of getting dementia goes up the older we get and, according to the latest statistics from the Alzheimer’s Association, 1 in 3 people have some kind of dementia by the time they die.
- The elderly population—who is most likely to get this illness—is the largest and fastest growing population in the United States because the Baby Boomers are just starting to hit the age when Alzheimer's Disease and other age-related dementias start to really become an issue. (According to the Alzheimer’s Association, if nothing changes, the number of people with age-related dementia is expected to triple in 34 years.)
- This year, dementia is expected to cost this country 236 billion dollars. Obviously, in the future this number could be going way up!
- And these statistics, of course, do not address the emotional, physical and financial toll on the families trying to take care of loved ones.
So let’s look at that.
The reason why so much of the research is focussed on a physical cure is because there are physical things that seem to be correlated with the disease.
And that makes sense as far as drug research goes...but is that the best and only approach to reducing the incidence of Alzheimer's Disease and age-related dementia?
In 1997 an article was published in the journal Gerontologist by researcher David Snowdon about a famous project, still going on today, that we in the Alzheimer's field call “The Nun Study.” At the time of that report Snowdon had interviewed and tested the memory and cognitive skills of 678 nuns over their lives and when they died he did an autopsy of their brains. Lots of interesting things were discovered but here’s the story I found of most interest.
One of the nuns, Sister Mary, lived to be 101 years old. She was mentally sharp and scored incredibly high on all these tests, including the last one she did just a few weeks before her death. But when they cut open her brain, they found signs of atrophy and more plaques and tangles than anyone else's they had studied up until that point. According to what had been assumed from the science, she should have had full-blown Alzheimer’s Disease but she showed none of the symptoms.
So this opens up a lot of questions about why. What they know about Sister Mary is that she was very upbeat and optimistic, she took an active interest in everything, and she seemed to be extremely social. Since then, some researchers have been focussing on those particular clues.
The Effects of Social Engagement and Life Purpose
For example, researchers at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago did a study on the effect of loneliness and social isolation on Alzheimer’s Disease that was published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2007. It showed that people who reported being lonely a lot of the time were twice as likely to develop the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease than people who did not and that the incidence of Alzheimer's was NOT related to the amount of plaques and tangles in their brains--it was correlated with a difference in how they warded off the effects of the physical changes those plaques and tangles represent.
An even more recent study published in 2011 by the Rush Center showed that the more social (and less lonely) a person is, the more they ward off these effects. The most social people seemed to be rewarded with a reduction of the incidence of Alzheimer's Disease of as much as 70%!
But loneliness is not the only factor worth considering. The Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center also did a study, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2012, that showed that feelings of life purpose also seem to make a significant difference. Life purpose was defined as anything that gives people a feeling of meaning such as family relationships, church attendance, civic engagement, music or art—things people really care about doing. On a scale of 1 to 5 in terms of self-reported meaningful activities, participants with a score of at least 4 were almost 2.5 times more likely to be free of Alzheimer's symptoms than people who scored a 3 or lower.
And there was one last study I'd like to mention that was published in 2015 in a peer-reviewed journal called Maturitas by the Women's Health Ageing Project in Australia. It showed that these same protective effects could come from something as simple as babysitting a grandchild one day a week.
Five days a week had the opposite effect so you don’t want to take this too far... but think about this. Something that might be helpful to your parents or grandparents could be helpful for you! And it’s not just babysitting—it could be sharing a meal together, going to church together, it could be any number of things that people enjoy doing or things that make them feel useful in the family or in the wider world.
So I’d like you to think about what I shared with you today and start a conversation with your family or friends about it.
- Alzheimer’s Disease is a really big problem.
- The science doesn’t always match up with what actually happens with the disease.
- We know that people who are less lonely and have a sense of life purpose seem to ward off the effects of the illness.
- And there are ways that we might help each other with that.
- There are lots of lonely older people out there.
- Developing new habits that bring us close to other people and things we love to do are way easier to do when we're young and could have a significant impact on our well-being as WE age!
- And mutually beneficial relationships can be good for everyone.
James, B. D., Wilson, R. S., Barnes, L. L., & Bennett, D. A. (2011). Late-Life Social Activity and Cognitive Decline in Old Age. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society J Int Neuropsychol Soc,17(06), 998-1005. doi:10.1017/s1355617711000531 Retrieved April 14, 2016 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3206295/