Having ‘meaning in life’ and a ‘sense of purpose’ could lower the risk of developing dementia later in life, finds a review by researchers at the University College London (UCL).

The researchers analysed eight separate studies in order to discover whether positive psychological constructs, such as positive mood, optimism, a sense of purpose and meaning in life, were associated with a lower risk of dementia.

The study, which was supported by the Alzheimer’s society, used data from more than 62,000 older adults across three continents.

A sense of purpose was associated with a 19% reduced risk of cognitive impairment

The researchers found that purpose or meaning in life was significantly associated with a reduced risk of multiple cognitive impairment outcomes, including dementia and mild cognitive impairment.

In particular, a sense of purpose was associated with a 19% reduced rate of clinically significant cognitive impairment, however, this was not the case for other psychological constructs, such as a positive mood.

The authors of the study say that the findings may be explained by previous evidence, which suggests that purpose in life may hold benefits to recovering from stressful evidence and is associated with reduced inflammation in the brain, both of which may be associated with reduced risk of dementia.

They also suggest that people with a higher sense of purpose may be more likely to engage in activities such as exercise and social involvement, which may protect against dementia risk.

Dementia prevention programmes should work on an individual basis to add value to people’s lives

Dr Joshua Stott, lead author of the study, said the findings should inform the work of dementia prevention programmes. As he explains: “Our findings suggest that dementia prevention programmes for at-risk groups that focus on wellbeing could benefit by prioritising activities that bring purpose and meaning to people’s lives, rather than just hedonistic activities that might increase positive mood states.

“This may involve helping people to identify what is of value to them and then taking small steps to act in line with that value; for example, if environmentalism is important to someone, they might benefit from helping in a community garden.”

First author, PhD student Georgia Bell (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences) said the findings add to other evidence linking meaningful living with “improved mental health and reduced risk of disability and heart disease.”