Having a greater sense of purpose in life may help fend off Alzheimer’s disease as we age.
People who feel good about what they have done in their lives and look forward to what they will accomplish in the future feel a greater sense of purpose in life, making them less likely to suffer cognitive decline and its possible consequence, Alzheimer’s disease. While researchers say that there is no specific biological basis named for this connection, it may be connected to stronger immune function and blood vessel health, the study team, led by Patricia A. Boyle, PhD, of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, says.
A sense of purpose is defined in the study as a "psychological tendency to derive meaning from life's experiences and to possess a sense of intentionality and goal directedness that guides behavior."
Dr. Sandi Chapman, executive director at the Center for BrainHealth, says that our attitudes can affect our brain health.“Research shows that people who are optimistic develop more robust brain function and stronger brain connections; therefore, they stay mentally viable longer,” Chapman, who was not involved in the study, explains. “Those who develop a strong purpose in life have stronger mental function as well.”
The research is important in that it examines the notion of finding purpose in one’s life beyond the limits of what has been previously studied, says Cynthia Green, PhD, assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
Green, who was not involved in the study, says that the results, particularly those stating that a reduced risk of dementia is connected with a sense of purpose, are “fascinating.”
“What distinguishes successful agers [from their peers] is a sense of resilience—emotional resilience," Green explains. “There is a qualitative aspect of well-being that we don’t always measure when we look at cognitive impairment.”
We have more control than we realize over our cognitive health, she adds. “There is a lot that we can do in terms of how we function and the choices we make and how we see ourselves that impact our long term health and well being,” Green, whose latest book, Brainpower Game Plan focuses on ways to sharpen memory, concentration, and “age-proofing” your mind, maintains.
While eating a nutritious diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and staying physically active have all been touted as factors, emotional health and “the spirit side of brain health,” she notes, have not been as openly recognized because “those are hard to measure from a quantifiable perspective.”
“What is unique about this study is that is about one’s own personal sense of purpose. This is a step beyond, more abstract and removed,” Green explains. “Thinking of one’s own legacy, Boomers can reflect on one’s sense of purpose, what you want to leave as your mark, pursuing that provides opportunities for continued engagement, and being intellectually and socially engaged.”
Still, there are some mysteries of nature that are difficult to solve, Chapman concludes. “It is still a bit of the chicken-and-egg scenario, as there are many older folks who tend to be crotchety or mean—and never develop any type of Alzheimer’s or dementia.”