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A new study by scientists at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center has uncovered that having a purpose in life can result in better cognitive function. Individuals with more life purpose appear to have more cognitive reserve, which is the brain’s protective mechanism that helps delay symptoms of cognitive decline from showing.
In the study, the scientists examined the brain tissue of 246 people who had died during another long-term study of 1,400 older men and women. They found that people who had reported very different levels of cognitive decline had very similar-looking brains with the main difference being the amount of life purpose they reported. They defined life purpose as the “tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences and possess a sense of intentionality and goal directedness that guides behavior”.
As research has shown, Alzheimer’s disease affects cognitive functioning by causing the build-up of sticky protein abnormalities called plaques and tangles in the brain. Interestingly, some participants who had not suffered from cognitive decline had the same levels of damage (plaques and tangles) in the brain as those who did exhibit symptoms of cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s. These individuals who had not experienced cognitive decline despite signs of damage to the brain also reported a strong sense of purpose in life; a meaningful life purpose may have helped them prevent symptoms of cognitive impairment from being displayed.
The research team found a correlation between a stronger life purpose and increased cognitive reserve, leading them to believe that having stronger goals in life boosts the brain’s resilience. The correlation held true even after accounting for other factors such as education and levels of physical activity.
A sense of purpose has already established health benefits; other studies have proven a relationship between life purpose and lower rates of disability and death. Improve your brain health today by finding a hobby you are passionate about, setting a meaningful personal goal or simply adopting a pet, all of which give life purpose and meaning.