In 2050, 16% of the world’s population will be over 65 years of age. Consequently, the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias is expected to more than triple by that date, from 57 million people today to 152 million.
Research has shown that a healthy lifestyle, such as keeping your brain active, exercising regularly and eating a balanced diet, reduces your risk of developing dementia, but now a new research highlights how psychological well-being also protects your cognitive functions from degeneration.
Meaningful living protects cognitive functions
To better understand how mental well-being influences cognitive function and the risk of developing dementia, neuroscientists at University College London examined data from 62,250 people on three continents with a median age of 60 years.
They found that having purpose and meaning in life was associated with a 19% lower risk of dementia. The curious thing is that the meaning of life was a more decisive determinant than optimism and happiness.
The researchers explain that living with a purpose may reduce the risk of cognitive decline more than happiness due to the differences that exist between the concepts of eudaimonia and hedonism.
The key lies in eudaimonia
People who focus on pursuing eudaimonic happiness tend to live more balanced lives and are more likely to engage in protective behaviors such as physical exercise and social interactions.
The eudemonic search satisfies a very deep human need based on meaning, so that people who find meaning in their lives are more likely to implement healthy lifestyles that protect their emotional balance and, in the long run, cerebral functioning.
Instead, the hedonic activities that create a state of euphoria are often fleeting needs or urges that, once satisfied, leave a feeling of emptiness in their wake. The hedonistic pursuit of happiness may involve meaningless or unhealthy behaviors, so these people may be more prone to overindulgence.
In fact, another study conducted at Claremont Graduate University found that life satisfaction tends to increase with age due to an increased release of oxytocin. It is possible that having a purpose and meaning in life also reduces the presence of key biomarkers related to dementia, such as neuroinflammation and cellular stress response.
A meaningful life could play a protective role at the brain level because it decreases the response to stress. If we have lower levels of cortisol, we will be able to dampen any cellular response or chronic neuroinflammation that could affect the brain in the long term.
Therefore, to protect our brain, it is better that we focus on those activities that bring us well-being and balance, activities that are meaningful and that contribute to that greater plan that we have for our life.
Bell, G. et. Al. (2022) Positive psychological constructs and association with reduced risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia in older adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Ageing Research Reviews; 77: 101594.
Zak, P. J. et. Al. (2022) Oxytocin Release Increases With Age and Is Associated With Life Satisfaction and Prosocial Behaviors. Front. Behav. Neurosci; 10.3389.