Having a sense of purpose in life goes a long way in helping you live a richer, happier, more fulfilling life. But it can have much more than emotional benefits. Research now suggests that having a sense of purpose can also protect against one of the most dreaded age-related diseases — Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers evaluated 246 participants from the Rush Memory and Aging Project at Rush University Medical Center. These participants did not have Alzheimer’s disease at the start of the study, and they underwent thorough testing every year for approximately 10 years to determine their cognitive functioning, neurological health, and overall physical health.
The testing also included questions related to the participants’ purpose in life. Researchers defined this as “the tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences and possess a sense of intentionality and goal directedness that guides behavior.”
Questions included “I feel good when I think of what I have done in the past and what I hope to do in the future,” and “I have a sense of direction and purpose.”
All participants agreed to have their brains autopsied after their deaths as part of this study. The mean age of the study participants at the time of death was 88.2 years.
Researchers specifically looked for plaques and tangles in the brain that develop in most elderly people, but are especially prominent in those who have Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers wanted to see if those who had a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment, and stronger social networks, had a slower rate of cognitive decline, even as they accumulated plaques and tangles in their brains.
They found that, indeed, sense of purpose and strong social networks had a beneficial effect on cognition, even with these physical changes in the brain. In fact, researchers stated that “participants with higher levels of purpose in life exhibited better cognitive function even at more severe levels of tangle involvement.”
They also concluded that cognitive function in those who had higher levels of purpose in life declined more slowly than in those who had a lower purpose in life.
What’s Your Purpose?
The results of this research make sense if you think about it. After all, having a sense of purpose in life gives you something to look forward to every day. It motivates you to accomplish ordinary and extraordinary things, and it gives you confidence, determination and the desire to look positively toward the future.
With so much to look forward to in life, younger people tend to have no problems developing a sense of purpose. They are busy graduating from high school or college, building careers, making friends, meeting their spouses and starting families.
However, the older we get, the easier it is to lose our sense of purpose. Being retired, having an empty nest, and dealing with health problems can cause many older individuals to stop being as optimistic about the future. Unfortunately, as this study shows, this lack of purpose and fulfillment can be detrimental to our brains and overall health.
Develop a New Sense of Purpose
If you’ve found yourself floundering in boredom, depression or lack of purpose, how can you pick yourself up and develop a new sense of purpose in life?
One incredibly important way is to surround yourself with family, friends and colleagues who bring out the best in you and challenge you intellectually. If you’re retired, or if your kids are grown and out of the house, join organizations or groups that allow you to surround yourself with interesting people who can motivate you to try novel and exciting things.
Next, set new goals for yourself. They can be as small or as big as you want them to be. Perhaps you want to travel the world or start a new business. Or maybe you want to redecorate your house or run your first 10K. Whatever your goals, write them down and post them in a prominent place so that you can feel inspired and motivated every day.
Finally, sit down and reflect on all of the knowledge and skills you’ve picked up over the years. Then think about unique ways to use those skills. Just because you’re retired or have an empty nest doesn’t mean you have nothing left to contribute to society. You just have to use your skills in different ways. Consider volunteering at a local organization, getting a part-time job, or even starting an at-home or Internet-based business. The sky’s the limit.
 Boyle P et al. Effect of Purpose in Life on the Relation Between Alzheimer Disease Pathologic Changes on Cognitive Function in Advanced Age. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012;69(5):499–504.