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Purpose in Life May Help an Aging Brain

May protect against dementia, disability, premature death

By Nancy Di Fiore

Can having a purpose in life help preserve or protect a person’s health? Researchers at Rush University Medical Center have found that having a purpose in life may make you less likely to develop infarcts (tissue damage) in the brain. Infarcts can be caused by a blockage in one of the blood vessels in the brain that interrupts blood flow and cause a stroke or brain tissue damage.

Having a purpose in life — defined as a strong sense that your life has meaning and direction — may also protect against dementia, movement problems, disability and premature death. These findings were published in the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke in March.

“Mental health, in particular positive psychological factors such as having a purpose in life, are emerging as very potent determinants of health outcomes,” said Patricia Boyle, PhD, study co-author and associate professor of behavioral sciences at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center. “Clinicians need to be aware of their patients’ mental health and encourage behaviors that will increase purpose and other positive emotional states.”

'Purpose in life differs for everyone'

Researchers analyzed autopsy results on 453 people, average age 84, who volunteered for the Rush Memory and Aging Project. The volunteers underwent annual physical and psychological evaluations until they died (at an average age of 90). None of the participants had known dementia when they started the study, and all participants had agreed to organ donation at death. Among the participants, 114 had clinically diagnosed stroke.

At autopsy, the researchers found that 47.7 percent of the 453 people had macroscopic infarcts (visible to the naked eye) or microinfarcts (visible with microscope). Participants who had reported a stronger purpose in life were 44 percent less likely to have infarcts.

“Purpose in life differs for everyone. It is important to be thoughtful about what motivates you (such as volunteering, learning new things or being part of the community) so you can engage in rewarding behaviors,” said Lei Yu, PhD, lead study author and assistant professor of neurological sciences at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center.

Co-authors from Rush University Medical Center are Patricia A. Boyle, PhD, Robert S. Wilson, PhD, Steven R. Levine, MD, Julie A. Schneider, MD, and David A. Bennett, MD.

The study was supported by the National Institute on Aging, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, and Illinois Department of Public Health.

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