Life is a sequence of transitions. We start as children at school, perhaps attend college, start careers, take time out of a career to care for others, perhaps start a new job and eventually transition out of paid work.

One of life’s challenges is to seek a new sense of purpose and meaning through these changes.

Purpose and Mortality

A higher sense of purpose is directly linked to better health and protection against mortality. In an analysis of data collected on over 136,000 people, published in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, those with a higher sense of purpose had a significantly lowered risk of mortality.

Purpose and Mental Health

A higher sense of purpose can also protect cognitive function, even in the setting of changes of the brain that are associated with dementia.

In a study published in 2012 in JAMA psychiatry, people who undertook assessments of cognitive function and sense of purpose while alive donated their brains for autopsy after death.

Those who had a higher sense of purpose retained better cognitive function, even if their brains looked like those of Alzheimer’s victims.

Why Does Purpose Benefit Our Health?

Research has shown that there are many reasons purpose has such strong health benefits. People with a sense of purpose do tend to undertake healthier behaviours, including good nutrition and exercise. They also tend to be proactive in self-care.

Direct Biological Effect

People with a higher level of purpose have lower levels of inflammatory markers. Higher levels of baseline inflammation are linked with frailty, a state of physiological vulnerability and diminished reserve to cope with stressors like infection.

Older adults with a strong sense of purpose can maintain a faster walking speed, which is an excellent indicator of general health and the physical reserve to cope with illness.

Finding Purpose

It can be challenging to find a new purpose in life if there has been a transition that necessitates a redefined role, but it is possible.

Martin Seligman, one of the founders of the positive health movement, suggested that you “use your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are.”

In a study of women aged 50-70, an intervention that encouraged people to identify their strengths had a persistent effect to improve wellbeing and depressive symptoms.

We all have our own resources and skills that can be applied to something that feels more important that our selves. Purpose doesn’t have to be showy, like a high-status job. Caring for grandchildren or volunteering at a nursing home can make a huge difference to other people’s lives.

Even identifying a goal, like completing a hike or starting a regular blog, can provide a structure to help live with an increased sense of purpose. Focusing on the immediate sense of satisfaction can be a wonderful motivation for the health change that can extend longevity.

How are you living your life with passion and purpose? Do you agree that having a purpose in life is good for your health and wellbeing?

Kate GregorevicDr. Kate Gregorevic is a geriatrician and PhD candidate. Her research interests include frailty, healthy aging and illness recovery. She loves sharing the latest evidence-based healthy living tips specific to women in their sixties and beyond. Kate has three children and relaxes with yoga. Visit her website at www.elderhealthaustralia.com

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