A recent study published in JAMA Network Open explores the relationship between purpose in life and cognitive impairment. The researchers found that declines in purpose in life were observed across both preclinical and clinical stages of cognitive impairment. Additionally, maintaining a sense of purpose in life may have the potential to reduce apathy related to dementia.
The study examined data from two cohorts: the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) and the National Health and Aging Trends Study (NHATS). Participants in both cohorts were given cognitive assessments to determine their cognitive status at each wave. The decline in purpose in life was greater during cognitive impairment and in clinical settings.
In the HRS cohort, which had a younger mean age of 64.76 years, purpose in life was measured using a subscale that required participants to rate items related to their sense of direction and purpose. The NHATS cohort, with a higher mean age of 76.82 years, assessed purpose in life with a single item.
The study found that purpose in life declined in the years leading up to the development of cognitive impairment and further declined during cognitive impairment. The decline in purpose during impairment was approximately three times greater in the HRS cohort and four times greater in the NHATS cohort compared to the decline prior to impairment.
It’s important to note that this research expands on previous studies that primarily focused on the associations between purpose and healthier cognitive outcomes in older adulthood, and less on the changes in purpose that occur with declines in cognition. The findings highlight the potential importance of maintaining purpose in life as effective treatments for dementia are developed.
This study has some limitations, including the use of performance-based measures to define cognitive impairment and the focus on early stages of impairment. Additionally, the findings may not be generalizable to populations outside of the United States.
In conclusion, the study provides valuable insights into how purpose in life may change with declines in cognitive function. By maintaining a sense of purpose, individuals with cognitive impairment may experience improved psychological and cognitive health. Further research and interventions focused on preserving purpose of life could be beneficial in supporting individuals with dementia.
Sutin AR, Luchetti M, Stephan Y, Terracciano A. Change in Purpose in Life Before and After Onset of Cognitive Impairment. JAMA Netw Open. 2023;6(9):e2333489. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.33489