Findings from a longitudinal study from the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago suggest that choosing a job that brings meaning to one’s life may have more value than previously thought because a strong sense of purpose seems to slow the clinical effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

As reported in The Atlantic, the study began in 1997 and involved more than 1,400 senior citizens who showed no signs of dementia when they entered the research group. Each year, participants’ physical, social, psychological and cognitive health were assessed, and they were also asked to rate how strong their sense of purpose in life was. When study participants die, researchers autopsy his or her brain and correlate the cognitive, physical, psychological and “purpose in life” assessments. So far, 246 patients have been autopsied.

“[W]hen the Rush researchers looked at participants whose brains, upon autopsy, had identical levels of plaque and tangles, and then correlated that with how those people had rated in terms of both cognitive functioning and a strong purpose of life … the people who rated highly on the purpose of life scale had a 30 percent lower rate of cognitive decline, over the whole study period, than those with low scores on the purpose of life scale. What that means, according to the researchers, is that a strong sense of purpose in life evidently strengthens or provides a higher level of what’s known as ‘neural reserve’ in the brain. ‘Reserve’ is the quality that allows many physiological systems in the human body to sustain what the Rush researchers call ‘extensive organ damage’ before showing clinical deficits. … What the Rush researchers’ results indicate is that having a strong sense of purpose in life, especially beyond the age of 80, can give a person’s brain the ability to sustain that damage and continue to function at a much higher level.”

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Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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