Having a strong sense of purpose in life may lower the likelihood of brain tissue damage in older adults, new research suggests.
Classic characteristics of old age
Autopsies conducted among adults in their 80s revealed that those who felt their lives had meaning had far fewer "macroscopic infarcts" – small areas of dead tissue resulting from blockage of blood flow.
This kind of brain tissue damage is believed to boost the risk for developing dementia, movement problems, disability and/or death – many classic characteristics of old age.
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"We know that negative emotional states like feeling bad, alone or sad are associated with a lot of negative health outcomes, whether or not you actually are alone or why you may be feeling badly," 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.
"What's exciting about our new work is that we focused on the positive impact of having a purpose in life," Boyle added. "Meaning, having a feeling of well-being and a sense that your life is good, and that you're doing something important with your time."
What the team is finding, she said, is that having a positive mental state is somehow protective in old age.
Blood flow constriction
While the study found a connection between feeling a sense of purpose and brain tissue damage, it did not prove cause-and-effect.
The research, published in Stroke, was funded by the U.S. National Institute on Ageing, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The study authors noted that blood flow constriction in the brain drives up the risk for tissue damage and for stroke.
For the study, the researchers conducted autopsies on 453 seniors who had enrolled in the Rush Memory and Ageing Project while in their 80s and still apparently dementia-free. The average age at autopsy was 84.
Roughly one-quarter were found to have experienced a stroke before death. Nearly half had signs of major and minor brain tissue damage.
But when annual psychological evaluations were stacked up against autopsy results, the research team determined that men and women characterised as having a strong sense of life purpose were 44 percent less likely to have suffered major brain tissue damage – infarcts visible to the naked eye.
The finding held up independently, even after taking into account each patient's history of blood pressure, stroke, physical activity, diabetes, depression and/or Alzheimer's, the researchers said.
Helpful and positive
"Medical research tends to focus on those things that might raise the risk for disease," Boyle noted. "But health and wellness are not just the absence of disease. When we look at old age we shouldn't strive only for disease prevention, but for vitality and healthiness and happiness."
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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Timothy Smith, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, welcomed the report.
"It's about time that the medical community takes the contribution of social factors to our state of health seriously," he said.
"Our experience is holistic," he said, referring to the connection of mind, body and spirit. Practitioners of holistic health consider the whole person and the interaction of people with their environment, instead of focusing just on specific parts of the body or illness.
The finding of "a direct link between having a purpose and brain function and the deleterious effects of a stroke is awesome," said Smith. "And it should absolutely prompt people to start holistically addressing the social factors involved."
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