We’ve known for quite a while that some people seem to escape cognitive decline well into their nineties and beyond. Intriguingly, the brains of these sharp olders often reveal the extensive abnormalities like the “plaques” and “tangles” seen in people with Alzheimer’s. We think it’s because they’ve built what scientists call “cognitive reserve.” Most systems in our bodies can sustain some level of damage before they start to malfunction, and the brain is no exception. We build cognitive reserve—extra neurons and the connections between them—by resisting habit and inertia and continuing to learn new things. But how does this forestall or prevent memory loss and other diseases associated with old age?
When scientists at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center in Chicago dug deeper, they uncovered another, overarching factor. They examined the brain tissues of 246 people who died during a long-term study of more than 1,400 older men and women. The autopsy results, reported in Archives of General Psychiatry, were striking. People who exhibited very different levels of cognitive decline often showed similar levels of damage from Alzheimer’s. The brains that functioned better, it turned out, belonged to people who had indicated more purpose in life over the course of the study.
In other words, having a goal in life actually affects cellular activity in the brain. Plaques and tangles still form, but having a goal seems to increase the brain’s protective reserve. Not only that, the stronger the purpose, the more it adds to the reserve. The results held up even after the researchers controlled for differences in exercise levels, education, and other factors. Other studies link a sense of purpose not only to slower rates of cognitive decline but to lower rates of disability and death.
The study defined purpose in life as “the tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences and possess a sense of intentionality and goal directedness that guides behavior.” I’d say it’s being part of something bigger than yourself that feels like it has value. For the nonagenarian card sharks of Laguna Woods, that might mean winning the next rubber. For me, it’s making the world safe to grow old in. So if you don’t happen to have one, Join me in the radical age movement and bolster your brain for sure.
Even if you’re not worried about losing your marbles, here’s another good reason to jump on the pro-aging, anti-ageism bandwagon. Over five million Americans have Alzheimer’s, and their numbers will swell as the 65+ population continues to increase. It’s a massive public health challenge. Several factors are responsible for the disease, and a cure is frankly unlikely, so encouraging preventive measures makes all kinds of sense. This means helping olders stay engaged and purposeful.
What’s the biggest obstacle? The pervasive ageism that sidelines and segregates older member Americans, making it infinitely harder to find meaningful roles in late life. Challenge ageism, help spearhead a public health initiative to prevent dementia, and boost your brain on the barricades!