One Surefire Way to Boost Your Brain Health This Year

People with a clear sense of purpose score better on this "brain care" card

A digitally-generated brain against a purple background.
How do you score on the Brain Care Score card?
Milad Fakurian/Unsplash

Researchers at the McCance Center for Brain Health at Massachusetts General Hospital recently developed a Brain Care Score (BCS) card, which tallies up a variety of one’s personal inputs — physical biomarkers, lifestyle habits, emotional health — then spits out a number from 0 to 21. The closer to 21, the better, researchers found.

The idea, as experts at Harvard Health pointed out, is to determine how “current habits might impact future brain health.” Consider the BCS a veritable cheat sheet for assessing your long-term risk of a stroke or dementia. This sort of packaging helps elevate our understanding of brain health; it’s actually something we can train and sharpen (e.g., how we go on runs or bike rides to boost heart health).

I highly recommend perusing the BCS card for yourself, and the accompanying Frontiers of Neurology study, which was published in December 2023.

But if you cling to just one take on brain care, make it this: the importance of purpose. According to Dr. Andrew Budson, a neurology expert at Harvard Medical School, determining one’s “meaning of life” has the potential to supercharge each score on that BCS card…which in turn will improve your lifespan (and just as critically, your healthspan). We dig into what he means by that below.

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What’s the meaning of life? Heavy stuff, when you phrase it like that. But for better brain care, you don’t have to determine the existential, Milky Way-level meaning of life — you just need to figure out what your meaning of life is. In other words, what’s your purpose?

Purpose is an extremely potent asset in life, yet chronically underrated in relation to the usual carrots we chase: money, power, approval, etc.

Some might associate purpose with the mumbo jumbo of a mirror mantra, but, scientifically speaking, it’s something that can be weighed and observed. According to the Mayo Clinic, people who live with purpose “sleep better, have a more robust immune system, lower stress levels and better cognitive function.” At the same time, a lack of purpose increases one’s susceptibility to anxiety and depression.

Those with a clear north star tend to take better care of themselves, over the long arc of a life, in service of their mission (whatever that mission may be). Their discipline doesn’t come at the expense of happiness — if anything, it creates more space for leisure and discovery. As the great marathoner Eliud Kipchoge says: “Only the disciplined ones are free in life.”

Different cultures have different names for this concept. The Okinawans say ikigai, the Nicoyans in Costa Rica say plan de vida. But each phrase translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” Finding that “why” can feel random and frustrating, but it often brings people to pursuits and causes outside of themselves. And — again, science backs this up — once you believe your life matters, you get to live more of it.

You may have no clue what your purpose in life is. That’s okay. Take an appraisal of your principles, values and dreams. Remember that action is the greatest antidote to anxiety. Risk-taking is good. Responsibilities are good, too. If you want to chase anything, chase the flow state, which has been described as A) “the melting together of action and consciousness” and B) a situation in which, “under the right conditions, you become fully immersed in whatever you are doing.”

For some, this runner’s high of purpose is attained while performing a job they love. For others, it’s discovered in the steady march of parenting or teaching, or in the struggle of learning new things. Whatever it is — whatever the meaning of life means to you — living in it and for it will keep your brain engaged and your BSC sheet filled out for decades to come.

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