How Having Life Purpose Might Help Your Brain

Large brain infarcts were less common in patients who had strong sense of life purpose

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Finding your purpose in life may give you more than just a sense of fulfillment — it may also give you better brain health.

A new study found that people who had a strong sense of purpose in life were less likely to develop brain infarcts as they aged.

The authors of this study also noted that this life purpose may help protect aging adults from dementia, movement problems and early death.

Lei Yu, PhD, of the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, led this study.

In a press release, study author Dr. Patricia A. Boyle said, “Mental health, in particular positive psychological factors such as having a purpose in life, are emerging as very potent determinants of health outcomes.”

She continued, “Clinicians need to be aware of patients’ mental state and encourage behaviors that will increase purpose and other positive emotional states.”

Dr. Yu and team found that a strong life purpose and direction might be tied to less blood flow blockage that causes brain damage in people as they age. The research team studied 453 patients who were on average about 84 years old. These patients were studied until they died, at an average age of about 90.

Among these patients, 114 were diagnosed with stroke. A stroke happens when oxygen-rich blood flow to a part of the brain is blocked. Since oxygen is cut off, the brain cells start to die within minutes. Stroke symptoms include sudden weakness, paralysis or movement problems; numbness of the face, arms or legs; trouble speaking or understanding speech; and trouble seeing. A stroke can cause permanent brain damage, long-term disability and even death.

After the patients died, brain autopsies showed that about 48 percent of those diagnosed with clinical stroke had small or large brain infarcts, which are small areas of dead tissue resulting from blood flow blockage.

Dr. Yu and team found that patients who reported stronger life purpose were 44 percent less likely to have large brain infarcts. They did not find a significant relationship between having life purpose and developing small brain infarcts.

“Purpose in life differs for everyone and 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,” Dr. Yu said.

This study was published March 19 in the journal Stroke.

The National Institute on Aging, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and Illinois Department of Public Health funded this research. Drs. Julie A. Schneider and David A. Bennett served as consultants for pharmaceutical companies and editors for academic journals.

Review Date: 
March 19, 2015
Last Updated:
March 20, 2015