This and the following entry propose the likelihood that most congregations offer their members—perhaps especially older members—benefits that help deter or delay the effects of Alzheimer’s dementia. Perhaps you might see your congregation’s significance in a new light. Today an introduction and one factor that helps me understand Alzheimer’s dementia..
Today I write with observations about how being part of God’s community of faith may offer some tangible strengths that can counteract the effects of *Alzheimer’s dementia. My thoughts come from my long years of following and writing about neuroscience, including the matter of dementia in elderly people.
As of this writing there is no cure for Alzheimer’s dementia. At the same time, continuing research has yielded some promising findings about factors that may contribute to delaying or diminishing the severity of this condition.
For over eight years I have been one of the subjects in a longitudinal study of dementia conducted by **Rush Medical University in Chicago. As part of my participation in the research, I take part in yearly memory tests, physical exams and other procedures that examine a host of external and internal factors that might contribute to the onset and development of this disease. At my death, Rush will receive my brain and brain stem for close examination and correlation with facts about my years of testing.
During these years I have wondered about the possibility that a life of faith—particularly as it shows itself in congregations—might strengthen or counteract any number of environmental or cultural factors that are associated with Alzheimer’s. At first, I thought I was displaying cognitive bias—when you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail—about the place of the church in the life of older adults. But after more personal experiences, extensive reading and prayerful thought, I’m convinced that being part of a congregation might contribute to the slowing of Alzheimer’s dementia, possibly reducing its severity. Let’s start with a current research finding.
Some people whose brains were filled with amyloid plaques and tangles—long-assumed to show the brain’s physical deterioration—had not exhibited dementia. Others whose cognitive and emotional capacities had deteriorated showed no evidence of damaged brain tissue. The difference? There is evidence that some people amass an abundance of neuronal capability—a reserve—that equips their brains to improvise around difficulties, finding alternate ways of thinking and being—perhaps even in the presence of brain-destroying physiology. Cognitive reserves may develop over lifetimes because of experiences such as challenging intellectual activity, rich networks and continual learning.
Being part of a worshipping community can engage older brains fully, strengthening the brain’s reserves. Not just cognitively—e.g., examination of Scripture and doctrine—but also emotionally. (Joy, peace, shared laughter and purposeful living seem to fit here.) Belief includes both cognitive and emotional aspects. Traditional Christianity relies on strong collective and individual memories—another whole-brain activity. Spiritual matters draw believers into imaginative reverence. Intellectual curiosity—even doubt—is encouraged.
These examples offer the possibility that active involvement in the life of a congregation can add to members’ cognitive reserves—possibly delaying the effects of Alzheimer’s dementia.
In the next entry, I share several more factors that may work together to benefit the brains of church members, including those facing dementia.
*For a concise and authoritative review of Alzheimer’s disease, see https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-happens-brain-alzheimers-disease.
**For an in-depth presentation about the methodology and preliminary findings from this respected research study, see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3439198. (As a shortcut, you can scroll through the site to FINDINGS.)