"It's very hard to identify factors that provide reserve, because reserve is a very complex thing," she explained. "There's lots of bad stuff happening
in the brain as people get older, and it's hard to protect against it. So we were excited to find something so positive and so helpful, so beneficial.
We looked at a whole host of things that would indicate how cognitively active someone was, how socially connected they were, whether they were
exercising a lot ... all those things that have been shown to be protective against cognitive outcomes. And the findings for purpose in life was robust
even when we adjusted for those things. This suggests that purpose in life really does promote cognitive health as people get older."
I asked Boyle if it was possible that people who rated high on the "purpose of life" scale might have stronger, more curious, and more flexible
brains to start with ... making their strong sense of purpose more of a result than a cause of their brain's resiliency.
"I think it's some of both," she answered. "There probably is some association with purpose in life and your computing power, because by virtue of the
fact that someone is goal directed, and focused and intentional, they're probably engaging in a whole repertoire of behaviors that do grow their brain
and help it become stronger and more flexible. And I think it's certainly the case that people with purpose in life probably engage in a whole wide
array of behaviors that are good for them. That said, we did control for those things and we still see this protective effect, which suggests that
there may be a direct effect, as well."
Interestingly enough, other research (notably, work by Dr. Carol Ryff, published by the Institute on Aging) has found that the kind of protective
effect that purposeful living offers does not accrue from mere happiness, or what researchers call "hedonistic well-being." It would appear that humans
are hard-wired a bit like working dogs -- we may dream about a life of ease aboard luxury yachts, but we are at our best when we are gainfully engaged in
In a speech he gave in 1993, John W. Gardner, who was President Lyndon Johnson's Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare before founding Common
Cause, the Experience Corps and, at the age of 76, taking a teaching position at Stanford University, said that he believed the key to a vital old age
(he was 82 when he gave the speech) was to stay interested in life. "Everyone wants to be interesting," he said. "But the vitalizing
thing is to be interested. Keep a sense of curiosity. Discover new things. Care. Risk failure. Reach out."
Twenty years later, the Rush University research team is essentially saying the same thing -- just with a bit more neurobiology to back it up. If we want
to live well into old age, instead of just seeking happiness, pleasure, or a secure retirement of leisure, we should seek, instead, what the ancient
Egyptians prayed to be given: "a god's duty; a burden that matters."