- New research shows that positive mental well-being may help protect brain health as we age.
- The findings strongly linked having purpose and meaning in life with a reduced risk for mild cognitive impairment and dementia.
- Meaningful activities that engage the mind, body, and spirit may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
The meaning of life might just be about finding meaning in life itself.
A new meta-analysis in Ageing Research Reviews suggests that a life lived with purpose and meaning is good for brain health, offering implications for cognitive impairment in older adults..
According to the National Institute on Aging, people over 65 will account for 16% of the world’s population by 2050 — a 50% increase from 2010. The global prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias is expected to triple by 2050Trusted Source, from about 57 million to 152 million.
While prior evidence shows that a healthy lifestyle — such as keeping your brain active, regular exercise, and a balanced diet — reduces the risk of dementia, the new research offers insight into how psychological well-being may also play an important role in slowing cognitive decline.
How does having a sense of purpose improve brain health?
Older adults with dementia face increased risks for mental health conditions like depression.
Prior research has shown a strong link between positive psychology and physical health outcomes, while healthy aging research shows that mental well-being may play a role in longevity.
To better understand how mental well-being is associated with cognitive function and dementia risk, researchers at University College London examined data from 62,250 people across three continents with an average age of 60.
The systematic review of 11 studies observed the link between positive psychological constructs (PPCs) like purposeful living and the risk of dementia and mild cognitive impairment (MCI) in older adults.
The results indicate that having purpose and meaning in life is significantly associated with a 19% reduced risk for dementia. This was more statistically significant than other positive constructs like optimism and happiness.
Still, the mixed findings for different PPCs highlight a need for further research to explore the causal relationship between positive psychological factors and cognitive health.
Purpose vs. happiness: What’s the difference?
Georgia Bell, a PhD student at University College London and lead author of the study, told Psych Central that purposeful living may be more impactful for reducing MCI risk than happiness due to the differences between eudemonic (e.g., purpose or meaning) and hedonic (e.g., positive affect 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.
“Whilst an individual may gain happiness from these, the goal-oriented pursuit to live in a way that is purposeful [or] meaningful may act as motivation to live a healthier lifestyle.”
David A. Merrill, MD, an adult and geriatric psychiatrist, and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Pacific Brain Health Center in Santa Monica, California, explained that hedonic activities that bring you happiness are often fleeting, satisfying needs or urges.
“The hedonistic pursuit of happiness can involve mindless or unhealthy behaviors, like overindulgence, at times,” Merrill said by phone.
According to Merrill, eudemonic pursuits meet a certain human need through purpose or meaning.
Older adults may find meaning in strengthening interpersonal relationships, especially for those who’ve lost loved ones or have become estranged from other family members.
“If you can find a purpose in deepening your relationships with others, that may end up promoting all these other health behaviors that protect your brain and your body,” Merrill said.
The science of living with purpose
If having purpose or meaning in life leads to better brain health, it’s possible that biological and neurological factors play a role.
For instance, a study published in April 2022 in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience shows that life satisfaction increases with age due to the increased release of oxytocin.
According to Bell, it’s possible that purpose and meaning are also associated with key dementia-related biomarkers, such as neuroinflammation and cellular stress response.
“Whilst we offer possible explanations, we would like to emphasize these are only speculative and largely based on mechanisms for depression and dementia risk,” Bell said. “More research is needed to better understand this.”
Merrill agreed that having a purpose could play a protective role in decreasing the stress response. “If you have lower levels of cortisol, then hopefully it’s dampening any chronic neuroinflammation response or cellular response,” Merrill said.
What lifestyles can improve brain function?
Exercise is good for the body and the brain. Research shows that lifestyle factors, such as physical activity and social connectedness, may be helpful for preventing cognitive decline.
An April 2022 study published in The BMJe suggests that a healthy lifestyle is associated with a longer life expectancy and a reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
Meanwhile, a March 2022 study in Alzheimer’s & Dementia suggests that managing cholesterol and glucose in early adulthood can lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
If purposeful living is indeed a protective factor for memory loss, Merrill suggested modifying your behaviors to pursue meaningful activities.
“Excessive amounts of resting or inactivity aren’t really promoting physical health or brain health,” Merrill said.
“Just because you’re happy that you’ve obtained or achieved something, it may not necessarily reinforce any of the positive biological effects that are related to behaviors that improve physical health or brain health.”
Purpose-driven tips to promote brain health
Pursuing purpose protects against depression, and depression is a known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.
“When people are not depressed, they take better care of themselves overall — from their general physical health to their mental well-being, social connectedness, and activities.”
Merrill recommends goal-directed activities that are cognitively stimulating and help you stay physically active and engaged.
“There’s a chain reaction of positive events when you’re pursuing purpose,” Merrill said. “You’re boosting your mood, which boosts how well you take care of yourself.
Try engaging in volunteer work
If volunteering gives you purpose, you might prioritize a good night’s sleep and nutritious breakfast to hold yourself accountable for the job you need to do. You’re also socializing and connecting with others who are passionate about the same cause.
Spend more time outside
A large body of research shows that being outside in nature is beneficial for mental and physical health and improves cognitive function. Outdoor activities also tend to inspire social connections with others.
Prioritize your relationships
The Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest studies of adult life for more than 80 years, found a strong link between longevity and meaningful relationships.
According to Merrill, nurturing our relationships with our family, friends, and community, may also help protect us against depression and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Well-being and health are related to the success of our relationships,” Merrill said. “Purposefulness can decrease the pain that comes from disconnect, shame, and isolation.”
While there is not yet a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, a healthier lifestyle combining diet, exercise, and purpose may help prevent cognitive impairment in older adults.
Still, adults of all ages may wish to consider how we could make our lives more meaningful now.
Remember, there’s a distinct difference between hedonistic pleasures and purposeful activities.
Engaging in what gives you purpose and meaning may also make you more inclined to choose other healthy behaviors.
“It’s kind of futile to just chase after pleasure,” Merrill said. “Purposefulness, by happy coincidence, activates these other behavioral changes that are healthy for your body and your brain.”