By Hana Frenette
It feels good to master a new skill set, spend time with family and friends, or volunteer with an organization you love— but does following your passion or finding your purpose in life really lead to better brain function? Recent studies say yes.
In 2010, Dr. David Bennett and Dr. Pamela Boyle published a study in Archives of General Psychiatry about whether finding one’s purpose or passion in life could be associated with the reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease or other forms of dementia and cognitive decline.
The seven-year study focused on roughly 900 community-dwelling older individuals throughout the Chicago metropolitan area without dementia.
Researchers asked the participants to respond to a series of questions and rate their feelings of contentment with their life, and the direction or purpose they envision for their future.
Researchers found that a person who reported high scores relating to their purpose in life was approximately 2.4 times more likely to remain free of Alzheimer’s disease than a person who reported lower levels of contentment or purpose.
The study took into account age, sex, education— and still their results were fairly easy to quantify: feeling like you’ve found your calling, your passion, or your purpose has a distinctly positive effect on the health of your brain.
People who feel fulfillment, joy or pride in finding a purpose in their lives often feel happier and experience less stress, and therefore have fewer stress hormones in their body over their lifetime. The prolonged release of stress hormones like cortisol can lead to inflammation, which can negatively impact everything from brain function to heart health.
Another study asked people to respond to a short well-being survey and then used an MRI machine to capture how their brains responded when the participants were shown stressful or disturbing imagery. The study found that participants who scored highly on the well-being survey reacted in a more calm and mindful way when confronted with strong negative emotions, and suggested that a feeling of purpose can lead to a healthier cognitive reserve in the brain.
Cognitive reserve is the mind’s resistance to damage to the brain. According to Harvard Health Publishing, significant research shows that people with greater cognitive reserve are better able to stave off symptoms of degenerative brain changes associated with dementia, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, or a stroke.
The link between a purpose-driven life and healthier brain is significant and makes a good case for doing more of what you enjoy. Carve out some time for yourself and relish in the moments when you feel like you’re making a difference, learning something new or just enjoying how far you’ve come so far.
Around ten years ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) acknowledged the unmet need — and urgency — of including patient perspective in drug and device development in a systematic way.