Finding Purpose in Life Protects Your Brain in a Big Way

So, what is your purpose in life? Do you have a passion or a calling? Is finding your North Star an elusive task? If it is, you might want to read about why discovering a purpose in life is so important to brain health.

Background on Cognitive Decline

We know there are people who reach their late nineties and beyond with little outward evidence of cognitive decline. Yet, when the brains of these sharp older people are autopsied and viewed under a microscope there is evidence of abnormal “plaques” and “tangles”. This pathology is similar to what you would find in an advanced-stage Alzheimer’s patient. This leaves us with a curious question. Why would individuals with similar clinical abnormalities in their brains have different cognitive abilities? The answer has to do with cognitive reserve. Essentially, our bodies can sustain damage before malfunctioning and the brain is not much different. When it comes to protecting the brain, an engagement in lifelong learning and curiosity seems to help the brain adjust to the declines it faces over time. In other words, cognitive reserve – the buildup of connections between neurons – is accomplished by resisting habitual behaviors and by continuing to learn new things.

The Study: How Deriving Purpose in Life is Brain Boosting

Scientists at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago wanted to know if having a purpose in life is associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. To do this, these scientists first defined the term purpose in life to mean “the psychological tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences and to possess a sense of intentionality and goal directedness that guides behavior.” Next, they interviewed over 900 older persons living in a residential community and asked them to rate their agreement to the following statements on a scale of 1 to 5:

  • I feel good when I think of what I have done in the past and what I hope to do in the future.
  • I live life one day at a time and do not really think about the future.
  • I tend to focus on the present because the future nearly always brings me problems.
  • I have a sense of direction and purpose in life.
  • My daily activities often seem trivial and unimportant to me.
  • I used to set goals for myself, but that now seems like a waste of time.
  • I enjoy making plans for the future and working them to a reality.
  • I am an active person in carrying out the plans I set for myself.
  • Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.
  • I sometimes feel as if I have done all there is to do in life.

What the researchers discovered is that there are many positive health outcomes for persons who are goal-driven and have a sense of intentionality. These health advantages include having better mental health, less depression, a sense of overall happiness, feelings of satisfaction, a sense of personal growth and self-acceptance and better sleep. But the study did not stop there.

Reducing the Risk of Cognitive Decline

Over the course of seven years that this study took place, 155 of the 951 participants developed Alzheimer’s disease. When the scientists looked deeper, they discovered a more amazing finding that linked “purpose to life” to better brain health. The report, cited in the Archives of General Psychiatry, showed that persons who had a high purpose in life had a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, experienced less mild cognitive impairment and showed slower rates of cognitive decline in old age.  In other words, having an overarching goal or purpose protects your brain at the cellular level. More importantly, it seems that having a higher purpose adds to your cognitive reserve.

So, if you haven’t found your higher purpose or life’s goal, you might want to keep on searching for it. The more things you try, the more you learn, the greater your cognitive reserve. Since, currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease any preventive measures you can take are worthwhile. Don’t wait, go out  and find your life’s purpose.

Article adapted from:                                                                                                                                                                                                               McKay, D. S. (2014, March 23). How Finding Your Purpose Protects Your Brain: A Neuroscientist Explains. Retrieved February 23, 2018, from
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Original Research:                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Boyle, P. A., Buchman, A. S., Barnes, L. L., & Bennett, D. A. (2010). Effect of a Purpose in Life on Risk of Incident Alzheimer Disease and Mild Cognitive Impairment in Community-Dwelling Older Persons. Archives of General Psychiatry,67(3), 304. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2009.208