A study from Rush University Medical Center suggests that greater purpose in life can help stave off the harmful effects of plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer's disease. Plaques and tangles disrupt memory and other cognitive functions.

"Our study showed that people who reported greater purpose in life exhibited better cognition than those with less purpose in life even as plaques and tangles accumulated in their brains," said Patricia A. Boyle, PhD.

"These findings suggest that purpose in life protects against the harmful effects of plaques and tangles on memory and other thinking abilities. This is encouraging and suggests that engaging in meaningful and purposeful activities promotes cognitive health in old age."

The study appears in the Archives of General Psychiatry, a journal of the American Medical Association.

While plaques and tangles are very common among persons who develop Alzheimer's dementia, which is characterized by prominent memory loss and changes in other thinking abilities, recent data suggest that plaques and tangles accumulate in most older persons, even those without dementia.

Boyle and colleagues note that much of the Alzheimer's research that is ongoing seeks to identify ways to prevent or limit the accumulation of plaques and tangles in the brain, a task that has proven quite difficult.

"These studies are challenging because many factors influence cognition and research studies often lack the brain specimen data needed to quantify Alzheimer's changes in the brain," Boyle said. "Identifying factors that promote cognitive health even as plaques and tangles accumulate will help combat the already large and rapidly increasing public health challenge posed by Alzheimer's disease."


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012;69(5):499-504. "Effect of Purpose in Life on the Relation Between Alzheimer Disease Pathologic Changes on Cognitive Function in Advanced Age" Patricia A. Boyle, PhD; Aron S. Buchman, MD; Robert S. Wilson, PhD; Lei Yu, PhD; Julie A. Schneider, MD; David A. Bennett, MD

This study was funded by the National Institutes on Aging.