Having a certain mindset-namely, a heartfelt purpose in life-can help insulate us as we age against the ravages of brain infarcts, according to a new study.
Purpose can include activities such as community involvement, lifelong learning, volunteering-it's as distinct as those who possess it.
An obstruction that interferes with blood coursing through vessels in our brain can spur a stroke or injure brain tissue. The damaged tissue, called an infarct, can be a significant factor in dementia, movement problems, disability, and death as we get older.
Patricia Boyle, PhD, associate professor of behavioral sciences, Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center of Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, and the study's co-author, says that "mental health-in particular, positive psychological factors such as having a purpose in life-are emerging as very potent determinants of health outcomes." She adds that clinicians should urge patients to engage in behaviors that further their sense of purpose.
The researchers evaluated autopsy results of 453 people who volunteered for the Rush Memory and Aging Project and consented to a yearly physical and psychological evaluations until their death. The average age of participants was 84, and the average age of death was 90.
Among this group, some 114 had clinically diagnosed stroke. During the autopsies, the researchers discovered that almost twice that number had macroscopic infarcts visible to the naked eye or microinfarcts (visible using a microscope).
Those who said they were guided by a more powerful life purpose were 44 percent less likely to have evidence of macroscopic infarcts. This finding was unchanged even after adjusting for vascular disease risk factors, physical activity, depression, and diabetes.
The researchers say they believe our scores on the continuum of life purpose can be bettered.
The study, titled "Purpose in Life and Cerebral Infarcts in Community-Dwelling Older People," is discussed in an article in the American Heart Association's journal Stroke.