Summer brings with it reunions, and this year I was amazed to learn that one of our aunts now shares her home with three additional generations! She has great grandchildren living under her roof. And as the statistics and studies for this blog started to accumulate on my desk, I realized that her life actually evidences some of the trends I had been flagging as hopeful–the ones that say dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s, is on its way out. Dutch researchers, for example, have found that the risk of getting dementia in old age was significantly lower after the year 2000 than before. In fact, The Guardian headline quoting this study reads, “There’s no need to fear dementia. The end of the epidemic is in sight”.
The Alzheimer’s Association 2015 Report of Facts and Figures, projects the disease to be significantly more prevalent in the next ten years, but such predictions are tied directly to demographics. The overall population is aging, and with the sheer volume of boomers reaching ages beyond 75, Alzheimer’s cases in Oregon alone are anticipated to increase 35-44%.
Happily, some researchers are pointing us toward current trends that show how these projections could reverse. Most notable is the recent Rush University Medical Center study on aging that indicates the positive effect of meaningful and spiritual purpose in one’s life.
Currently, there are several well respected organizations validating Rush University Medical Center’s conclusions. For instance, the recent Alzheimer’s campaign presented by the Center for Applied Research in Dementia, Cameron J. Camp, Ph.D. (Director of Research and Development), challenges the common practice of calling Alzheimer’s a “disease” and opts instead to re-class it as a “syndrome,” thereby allowing society to integrate patients into mainstream culture and create opportunities for all to feel worthy and to have genuine purpose.
In Cleveland, Ohio, Peter Whitehouse, M.D., Ph.D. is successfully proving this approach. He and his wife founded the Intergenerational Charter Schools, where noteworthy academic achievement resulted when inner-city youngsters were paired with local retirees. Since their inception, Dr. Whitehouse has since conducted studies with the schools which provide evidence that elders are more mentally healthy when they have a reason to “stay alive, a genuine sense of purpose, and a community in which to do it.” In fact, the research connecting purposeful lives with healthy minds is so conclusive, that the 2015 White House Conference on Aging announced that the Surgeon General is working with YMCA’s across the country to host intergenerational events this summer to help inspire everyone to move more.
Moving more, especially while mixing generations, may be helpful, but it may fall short of the underlying need of elders. Dr. Whitehouse frames aging as our “unique ability to grow spiritually and mentally.” Will the American dream of retirement into a quiet, independent lifestyle, coupled with exercise class and regular volunteer work, support and push us to “grow spiritually and mentally”? The essence of this growth points to more than the mechanics of obligatory Zumba class and weekly shifts at the animal shelter. It is getting so inspired and spiritually invested, that we see past age limitations, we see beyond the boundaries of our peer defined lifestyle, and we thrive because we are genuinely striving to fulfill our divine purpose.
I have a friend who falls within the dementia-prone demographic and sometimes faces memory -related symptoms. I visit her often and have observed that reuniting with her spiritual purpose provides her better mental stability when symptoms flare up. We might, for instance, read the first chapter of Genesis and talk about how God creates everyone “in His image and likeness”. We often discuss His purpose and intent, and connect it with our own divine reason for being: to express His love and patience in our everyday experience and to bless those around us. We might share gratitude about our mutual blessings that come every time we meet.
Bible citations like these speak straight to the heart of my friend and me: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” (II Timothy) and “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee.” (Isaiah). Reaching out in prayer to God and affirming God’s divine nature as eternal good keeps my own thought filled with expectancy of good. These short visits with my friend invariably result in a healthy and grounded mental atmosphere, which means genuine comfort for both of us. Her family too, has noted the opportunity for longer and higher quality visits with her.
Understanding our purpose from a spiritual perspective brings staying power to our God-directed activity and hope to the victims of dementia. Mary Baker Eddy, who founded a daily print newspaper at the age of 86 and was mentally healthy throughout her entire life, advocated for health through spiritual laws. In her seminal work Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, she speaks of forsaking “the foundation of material systems, however time honored,” and later promises that “the purpose and motive to live aright can be gained now.”
For me, our culture’s mental health hinges on the willingness to think through the time-honored medical system of diagnosis, prescription, and eventual decline, and challenge its roots. Is it based on divine law or is it contrived by human convention? As more and more scientists like Dr. Camp and Dr. Whitehouse disprove the effectiveness of time-honored treatments, and we all (doctors, scientists and “all of us”) reach for inspired, spiritual solutions, the disappearance of Alzheimer’s is a definite possibility. “There is an end in sight!”