Purpose in life good for your brain

Perhaps it goes without saying, but having a strong sense of purpose in life is good for you.

Purpose in life is defined as a psychological tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences and possess a sense of intentionality and goal directedness.

Many studies have already shown this to be a component of well-being and it is associated with better health, competence, social integration, and participation in the labour force.

Purpose in life is also shown to have positive effects on cognitive and psychological health in the elderly, a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s Disease, reduced cognitive impairment, less disability and even reduced risk of death.

A new study examined the connection between purpose in life and Alzheimer’s Disease. Results published in the Archives of General Psychiatry last month showed that individuals with higher levels of purpose in life experienced better cognitive function in spite of advanced age and even Alzheimer’s.

In this longitudinal study of aging, 246 community-based seniors were assessed over time. Volunteers’ levels of purpose in life were assessed via structured interviews, cognitive function was measured each year and brain autopsies performed after death.

Researchers hoped to learn about the neurobiologic basis of the protective effect purpose of life has on our brains. What they found was that having purpose in life provides a protective reserve by reducing the effects of brain changes on actual cognitive function.

Although purpose in life didn’t seem to prevent tissue damage in the brain, individuals with higher levels of purpose showed better functioning even at more severe levels of damage to brain tissue.

With an aging population, Alzheimer’s is a condition that is affecting more and more Canadians. We have yet to discover any effective cure or even treatment to slow its progression and research into potentially protective or preventive measures we can take is important.

Alzheimer’s has a long phase during which individuals continue to function and live independently. Damage to the brain accumulates and cognitive function declines gradually – so it is very helpful to identify factors such as purpose that can protect against harmful effects of the disease.

Although it is helpful to know that having a sense of purpose in life can improve our odds when it comes to Alzheimer’s, is that sense of purpose something we can learn? Or is it simply a trait we are born with?

Some evidence suggests purpose in life can be modified or possibly learned – making this a potential treatment target. Of course more research is needed to fully develop this theory.

A few useful steps toward living with a sense of purpose might include setting measurable goals and working toward them and remaining engaged in activities and pursuits that interest you regardless of your age. Continue learning new things and consider getting involved in a cause that is meaningful to you.

I often meet people in my practice who have retired from the workforce and then seem to simply be waiting to die. I have always believed it is critical to keep the mind active at every stage of life.

 

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