Researchers in the US have found that older people with a strong sense of purpose in life may be less likely to have damage in the brain caused by decreased blood flow. The study is published in the journal Stroke.
Interruptions in the brain’s blood supply can result in a stroke or in damage to brain tissue known as ‘infarcts’. In some cases, reduced blood flow to the brain can cause vascular dementia, while research suggests that these problems in blood flow may also contribute to other types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Doctors at the Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago looked at brain tissue from 453 older people who had taken part in the Rush Memory and Aging Project before they died. None of the participants had dementia when they enrolled in the study. Each took part in physical and psychological assessments once a year for an average of six years, during which they were asked to answer questions about their sense of purpose in life.
Of the group, 114 had been diagnosed with a stroke before they died, while 216 people had evidence of tissue damage caused by disrupted blood flow in their brains. When the researchers looked at the participants’ assessments, they found that those who had reported a stronger sense of purpose in life were less likely to have large areas of this type of damage in their brains when they died.
Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, said:
“This study didn’t look at dementia or at thinking and memory, but research has shown that interruptions in blood flow in the brain can contribute to dementia. Other studies have suggested that keeping mentally active may reduce the risk of dementia, while depression has been linked to an increased risk. While these new findings suggest a link between a strong sense of purpose in life and a lower likelihood of damage from reduced blood flow in the brain, it’s not possible to separate cause and effect with this type of research, and we don’t know whether other factors could have had an impact on these results.
“We know that good vascular health can help protect the brain as we grow older, and a better understanding of the risk factors for vascular problems could provide important insights for reducing dementia risk. Continued investment in research to find preventions for dementia is vital, and in the meantime there are measures people can take to lower their risk. Evidence shows that eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, not smoking, and keeping blood pressure and weight in check can all help reduce the risk of dementia.”