Alzheimer’s disease and religious belief


By Micha Shalev

The United States is currently experiencing the early stages of what is expected to be an epidemic of Alzheimer’s dementia. It is predicted that the current number of cases of Alzheimer’s will double by 2020, and double again by 2040.

Some individuals are born with genes that strongly predispose them to developing Alzheimer’s and/or dementia. However, this is true for only a minority of people. The familial, early onset form of Alzheimer’s and/or dementia, which is so strongly linked to genetic abnormalities, is responsible for only about 5 percent of all cases of this illness. There is compelling evidence that the rest of us can escape, or at least postpone or diminish, the severity of Alzheimer’s by improving our diets and maintaining a healthier lifestyle. In most cases, it appears Alzheimer’s and dementia can be avoided.

An underappreciated, but scientifically substantiated fact, is that getting a good education, challenging your mind, maintaining friendships and staying socially active can also help reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and/or dementia in later life. A new report in the American Medical Association Journal, Archives of General Psychiatry now complements those findings in showing that simply having a sense of purpose in life can reduce this risk.

This study suggests that people who say their lives have a purpose are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or its precursor, mild cognitive impairment. Purpose — which the researchers define as a “psychological tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences and to possess a sense of intentionality and goal directedness that guides behavior” — has long been thought to protect against adverse health outcomes. Purposeful living was recently reported to be associated with longevity as well. But there was little information on the association of purpose with Alzheimer’s disease.

As one’s words and cognitive ability fade, symbols of faith can still elicit responses. The appearance of a cross or a Star of David, or touching a Bible, a prayer book or a rosary, can spark emotions that connect to religious activities of the past. Rev. David Wentroble suggests making a reminiscence packet for your loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia, which will help him or her to better deal with the overall medical problems.

Create a reminiscence packet that you can carry around to easily share with your afflicted loved one.

Below are some ideas to help you develop a meaningful reminiscence packet based on different faith traditions:

Catholic: Crucifix, rosary, scapular, sacred heart badge, statue of Mary, prayer cards for: The Lord’s Prayer, 23rd Psalm, Ten Commandments, Apostle’s Creed, Hail Mary, Magnificat, Mysteries of the Holy Rosary and prayer to the Sacred Heart.

Protestant: Bible (New King James Version), cross, traditional picture of Jesus, prayer cards for: The Lord’s Prayer, 23rd Psalm, Ten Commandments and Numbers 6: 24-26.

Jewish: Prayer book, yarmulkes, tallit, tefillin, mezuzah, Star of David, Kiddush cup and candlesticks.

Having your loved one hold and touch these kinds of familiar objects, or listen to a familiar prayer or song, can be a unique way of communicating when words are fading. This can be very reassuring to someone with Alzheimer’s. The memories of comforting religious activities can long outlast orientation to current time and place.

One of my dearest clients once told me: “I pray for the strength to find ways to comfort my mother in those moments of unknowing. I pray for strength to be unafraid of the future, especially when the moment comes in time when she will not remember me at all. I am strong thanks to my belief.”

Micha Shalev, MHA, is the owner of Dodge Park Rest Home and the Adult Day Care Club at Dodge Park located at 101 Randolph Road in Worcester. He can be reached at 508-853-8180 or by e-mail at or view more information online at Archives of articles from previous issues can be read at