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Brain Health: Spirituality and Purpose

Updated February 21, 2020

Leacey Brown

SDSU Extension Gerontology Field Specialist

A cure for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia is not available. Research tells us reducing our risk of developing the disease is within our reach. Because of the strong genetic link, some people will still develop the disease even when engaging in behaviors known to reduce the risk.

A huge amount of information has been discovered about the brain in the past 30 years. As a result, we are learning more about memory loss. To learn more about current research on brain health, check out a book by Michael C. Patterson and Roger Anunsen called, Strong Brains, Sharp Minds. They have developed The Cogwheels of Brain Health Model to help us understand factors that either increase or decrease our risk of developing memory loss.

The Cogwheels include:

  • Physical Exercise and Movement
  • Mental Stimulation
  • Stress Management
  • Social Engagement
  • Sleep and Mental Rest
  • Diet and Nutrition
  • Spirituality and Purpose

Spirituality & Purpose

Spirituality and purpose help protect us from memory loss. Spirituality is a broad term for the connection we feel to something outside ourselves. Some people express their spirituality through church attendance and prayer, while others find their spirituality in the natural world or through artistic expression. Spirituality is a profoundly personal experience and what is spiritual to one person might not be spiritual to another. For example, when I spend time working out at the gym listening to music, I feel a great sense of spiritual peace. For others, peace is the last word they would use to describe their experience at the gym.

Purpose is linked to spirituality and answers the question of why we get up each morning. Purpose is our why. Without a purpose, it is more difficult to overcome challenges. Our purpose could be to serve others, create art, discover a cure for a disease, teach, and so much more. One type of purpose does not provide greater protection from disease or illness than another type. For example, searching for a cure does not have greater benefit than creating art. The essential piece of the purpose equation is that it motivates you.

Things to Consider

Building your sense of purpose and spirituality offers some protection against memory loss. Researchers followed 900 people for 7 years and found people who could identify a purpose in their life were less likely to develop memory loss (See: New Movement in Neuroscience: A Purpose-Driven Life). Because of the individualized nature of spirituality and purpose, there are not quick, easy tips for achieving a sense of purpose and spirituality.


Here are some questions to consider as you examine your purpose (Adapted from Life Purpose Assessment):

  1. How often do you spend time reflecting on what is important to you?
  2. How do you express and live what is important to you?
  3. How do you use your passion to direct your energy?
  4. How are your gifts or talents contributing to your family or community?
  5. How are your goals connected to your overall purpose?


Here are some questions to consider as you examine your spirituality (Adapted from Spirituality Assessment):

  1. What type of contemplative activities (e.g. prayer, devotional, yoga, mindfulness, journaling, etc.) are part of everyday life?
  2. What meaningful connections do you have with other people?
  3. How does your spiritual community provide help and support?
  4. What connections do you feel to something larger than yourself?
  5. How do your spiritual beliefs impact you during times of loss, tragedy, and failure?


Related Topics

Aging Well, Health