Can a purpose-oriented life improve brain health? New research says yes

  • New research shows that positive mental health may help protect brain health as we age.
  • The results strongly linked having a purpose and meaning to life with a lower risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia.
  • Meaningful activities that engage the mind, body, and spirit may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

The meaning of life may be merely finding meaning in life itself.

A new meta-analysis in Aging Research Reviews suggests that living a life with purpose and meaning is beneficial to brain health, providing implications for cognitive impairment in older adults.

according to National Institute on Agingpeople over 65 will make up 16% of the world’s population by 2050 – a 50% increase from 2010. The global spread of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia is expected to Triple by 2050from about 57 million to 152 million.

While previous evidence shows that a healthy lifestyle — such as keeping your brain active, getting regular exercise, and eating a balanced diet — reduces the risk of dementia, new research offers insight into how psychological well-being may also play an important role in slowing cognition. decreases.

Older adults with dementia face an increased risk of mental health conditions such as depression.

Previous research has shown a strong link between positive psychology and physical health outcomes, while healthy aging research shows that mental health may play a role in longevity.

To better understand how mental health is linked to cognitive function and risk of dementia, researchers at University College London examined data from 62,250 people across three continents with an average age of 60 years.

A systematic review of 11 studies noted the relationship between positive psychological constructs (PPCs) such as purposeful living and risk of dementia and mild cognitive impairment (MCI) in older adults.

The results indicate that having a purpose and meaning in life is significantly associated with a 19% reduced risk of dementia. This was more statistically significant than other positive constructs such as optimism and happiness.

However, the mixed results of different PPCs highlight the need for further research to explore the causal relationship between positive psychological factors and cognitive health.

Georgia Bell, a PhD student at University College London and the study’s lead author, told Psych Central that a purposeful life may be more influential in reducing MCI risk than happiness due to differences between eudemonic (for example, purpose or meaning) and hedonic (for example. , positive influence or pleasure) well-being.

“People with higher eudemonic well-being may be more likely to engage in other protective behaviors, such as exercise and social interactions,” Bell said by email.

“Whereas an individual may gain happiness from these, the goal-oriented pursuit of living in a purposeful manner [or] The meaning may serve as a motivation to live a healthier lifestyle.”


Explained by David A. Merrill, MD, an adult and senior psychiatrist, and director of the Pacific Brain Health Center at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California, says that pleasure activities that bring you happiness are often fleeting and satisfy needs or urges.

“Pleasure-seeking for happiness can sometimes include reckless or unhealthy behaviors, such as excessive extravagance,” Merrill said by phone.

awareness efforts

According to Merrill, eudemonic pursuits satisfy a particular human need through purpose or meaning.

Older adults may find meaning in strengthening personal relationships, especially for those who have lost loved ones or become separated from other family members.

“If you can find purpose in deepening your relationships with others, you may end up promoting all of these other healthy behaviors that protect your mind and body,” Merrill said.

If having a purpose or meaning in life leads to better brain health, biological and neurological factors likely play a role.

For example, a study published in April 2022 in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience showed that life satisfaction increases with age due to increased release of oxytocin.

According to Bell, it is likely that purpose and meaning are also related to key biomarkers associated with dementia, such as neuroinflammation and the cellular stress response.

“While we offer possible explanations, we would like to stress that these are only guesswork and depend largely on the mechanisms of depression and risk of dementia,” Bell said. “More research is needed to better understand this.”

Merrill agreed that having a goal could play a protective role in decreasing the stress response. “If you have low cortisol levels, it will hopefully dampen either the chronic neuroinflammatory response or the cellular response,” Merrill said.

Exercise is good for the body And the brain. Research shows that lifestyle factors, such as Physical activity and social bonding, may be helpful in preventing cognitive decline.

A study was published in April 2022 in BMJ It indicates that a healthy lifestyle is associated with a longer life expectancy and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Meanwhile, a study was conducted in March 2022 in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia It is suggested that controlling cholesterol and glucose in early adulthood can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

If a purposeful life is indeed a protective factor for memory loss, Merrill suggested modifying your behaviors to pursue purposeful activities.

“Excessive amounts of rest or inactivity don’t really enhance physical health or brain health,” Merrill said.

“Just because you’re happy that you got or achieved something, it may not necessarily enhance any of the positive biological effects associated with behaviors that improve physical health or brain health.”

Pursuit of purpose protects against depression, depression is Known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

“When people aren’t depressed, they take better care of themselves — from their general physical health to their mental health, social bonding, and activities.”

Merrill recommends goal-oriented activities that are cognitively stimulating and help you stay physically active and engaged.

“There is a chain reaction of positive events when you go after a goal,” Merrill said. “You improve your mood, which enhances how well you take care of yourself.

Try to get involved in volunteer work

If volunteering gives you a purpose, you can prioritize a good night’s sleep and a nutritious breakfast to hold yourself accountable for the job you need to do. You also socialize and connect with others who are passionate about the same reason.

Spend more time outside

A large body of research shows that being in nature is beneficial for mental and physical health and improves cognitive function. Outdoor activities also tend to inspire social bonds with others.

Make your relationships a priority

The Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest-running studies of adult life for more than 80 years, found a strong link between longevity and purposeful relationships.

According to Merrill, nurturing our relationships with our family, friends, and community may also help protect us from depression and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Well-being and health are linked to the success of our relationships,” Merrill said. “Purposeful can reduce the pain of separation, shame, and isolation.”

Although there is no cure yet for Alzheimer’s disease, a healthy lifestyle that combines diet, exercise, and purpose may help prevent cognitive impairment in older adults.

However, adults of all ages may want to think about how we can make our lives more meaningful right Now.

Remember that there is a clear difference between pleasure and purposeful activities.

Engaging in what gives you purpose and meaning may also make you more likely to choose other healthy behaviors.

“It’s pointless to chase after pleasure,” Merrill said. “The goal, through happy coincidence, activates these other behavioral changes that are healthy for your body and mind.”


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