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THE POWER OF PURPOSE

Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” Phil Landfield blurted out as we commiserated about his ongoing battle with Parkinson’s disease. Landfield is a good friend and outstanding scientist. His mind is still sharp, but his body is becoming increasingly locked into slow and dysfunctional movements as his disease progresses.

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MAKING THE DECISION TO BE HAPPY

It is amazing how much of a difference perception can make in health and well-being. Eric is one of the inspiring people I have met who are managing their serious illnesses with courage and living meaningful, satisfying lives. I met him at a large conference on Parkinson’s disease where patients and support groups were learning about recent advances in understanding and treating the illness. Eric had participated in a clinical trial that involved surgery and receiving monthly drug infusions.

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BE HAPPY AND FLOURISH

Cecilia, a young office intern working during her summer break as a receptionist, was one of the happiest people you will ever meet. She had a radiant smile and a cordial, welcoming voice that was still pleasant at the end of a long day spent talking with clients, many who were very unhappy about their health.

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THE POWER OF PURPOSE

Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” Phil Landfield blurted out as we commiserated about his ongoing battle with Parkinson’s disease. Landfield is a good friend and outstanding scientist. His mind is still sharp, but his body is becoming increasingly locked into slow and dysfunctional movements as his disease progresses.


“You are so right. Can I quote you on that?” I asked. He knew I was writing articles on aging.


“Yes. Except Bette Davis said it first,” he chuckled.I checked it out. He was right. The quote is widely attributed to the spunky, sexy film actress of the mid-20th century. As I have gotten older – I am now 74 – my scientific research studies on aging have increasingly focused on managing the challenges of disease, injury and memory decline. Certainly, I have a strong personal motive in identifying positive things that help us be healthier and happier and then passing them on to help others. But it also fits in with my lifelong curiosity about human biology – learning about what is going on in the brain, body and mind.


The challenges faced in aging are many. They often include diseases such as Landfield was experiencing. Much of my research has focused on Parkinson’s. All the patients I know have described receiving the diagnosis as a life-changing event. Their responses have varied dramatically. Some, after recovering from the initial shock, have

responded gallantly, such as the actor Michael J. Fox. Fox said it saved his life and marriage because he stopped his self-destructive behavior of heavy drinking and overworking. Others are emotionally devastated, clinically depressed and suicidal.


What can make the difference in going one way or the other? Finding an important purpose for living has been an essential factor for many. Fox was at the young age of 29 and the height of his acting career when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. After publically announcing his disease in 1998, he went on to become a strong public advocate for research to find a cure. To promote this goal, he founded the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Disease Research in 2000. Over the past two decades, it has made a tremendous impact on funding and accelerating Parkinson’s research.


Having a strong purpose for living has also helped my friend Phil. His response has been to double down on his research program, leading his team to complete and publish very important papers on age-associated changes in the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for forming new memories that degenerates in Alzheimer’s disease. His discoveries include identifying drug

targets for rescuing and restoring disease-susceptible hippocampal neurons. His steadfast commitment to his great research has helped him enormously in bearing the progressively disabling dysfunctions of his disease.


The decisions Fox and Landfield made not only helped them but also tangibly helped others. Fox has galvanized Parkinson’s researchers, clinicians and patients to work together to find more effective ways to combat this terrible disease. Landfield has not only provided important clues for finding ways to prevent Alzheimer’s disease but also helped many younger colleagues in their career development.


I have witnessed the power of finding purpose in patients making a commitment to help others by participating in clinical trials. The benefits are not just in attitude but also in health. The shift in attitude and improvement in motor functions was dramatic in the Parkinson’s disease patients in our clinical trial.


Each patient had to go through a lengthy informed consent process in which possible risks from participating in the trial were explained. Programmable pumps would be implanted under the skin in their abdominal area and tubing would run from the pumps to a catheter implanted surgically into a diseased area of the brain. Even knowing their disease was relentlessly progressing and would only get worse, it took courage to participate in the trial after hearing about the risks involved. The brain surgery and drug delivery were dangerous, but it did offer real hope for beating a deadly disease.


In the testing before receiving treatment, the patients volunteering for the study were fearful and depressed. I remember the contractor describing in darkly somber tones building ramps into his house for the wheelchair- bound days he knew were coming. Others talked as if their lives were effectively over. But in making the choice to fight back and not be controlled by their disease, there was a remarkable change in attitude. Their lives had now taken on new meaning. They had chosen to take positive action, show courage and become proud of what they were doing for themselves and their community. All acknowledged the treatment might not benefit them, but they hoped it could help others in the future.


Progressively, their body language and speech became livelier and more high-spirited in our monthly interviews. Their movements were faster and more fluid than the rigidity they showed when they began the study. One patient who was already wheelchair-bound gradually began walking – and progressed to walking confidently. Their positive attitude continued throughout the two years of the study.


Seeing the patients improve reminded me of the American philosopher William James’ astute observation:


“Most people live — whether physically, intellectually or morally — in a very restricted circle of their potential being. We all have reservoirs of life to draw upon which we do not dream.”


The patients, through finding an important new purpose in living, effectively tapped into their reservoirs of inner strength. They were making a compassionate contribution to helping themselves, their families and others. They were no longer their disease. Now they were valued members of the human community who were willingly risking their lives for the common good.


Purpose opens the floodgates to our reservoirs of inner strength. Purpose, I believe, finds us. When it does, as Viktor Frankl passionately insisted in his influential book Man’s Search for Meaning, “Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct.” For Fox, Landfield and the patients in our clinical trial, it has made all the difference in living a meaningful life.  

DON MARSHALL GASH, PH.D.

Don Marshall Gash earned his Ph.D. from Dartmouth College and did his postdoctoral training at the University of Southern California. He is a professor at the University of Kentucky, as well as a neuroscientist and inventor. Gash has published over 200 scientific papers and five drug development patents. He is also the business founder/partner for Independence Assistance, Avast Therapeutics and Neuroway (d.b.a. KY Healthcare Training).

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