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A sense of purpose protects brains

If you are a senior citizen and lack a strong sense of purpose, then gets one, it may save your brain from tissue damage. New research involving autopsies of adults in their 80s showed far fewer “macroscopic infarcts” – dead tissue caused by blocked blood flow – among people who felt they were leading meaningful lives. Brain tissue damage of this kind is believed to increase the risk of dementia, movement problems, disability and/or death – many classic characteristics of old age.

“It is well known that negative emotions like feeling bad, alone or sad are linked to a great deal of negative health outcomes,” said study co-author Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Centre in Chicago. Such outcomes can include early death, an increased likelihood for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s, or a higher risk for disability, she noted.

“The new study is exciting because it is focused on the positive impact of having a purpose in life,” Boyle added. “In other words, a feeling of well-being, a sense that your life is good and that you’re doing something important with your time contribute to mental health.” The team has found that having a positive mental state is somehow protective in old age, she said.

Autopsies were conducted on 453 seniors in their 80s. One in four of them were found to have experienced a stroke before death and nearly half of them showed signs of major and minor brain tissue damage. When their autopsy reports were seen alongside their annual psychological evaluations the research team determined that men and women characterized as having a strong sense of life purpose were 44 per cent less likely to have suffered major brain tissue damage.

The researchers said people can find meaning in their lives through volunteering, learning new things, or being part of your community. “You can find whatever it is that drives you to be helpful and positive and strive for that and doing that will make a difference to your physical health,” Boyle said.

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