by Judith Graham for Kaiser Health News, August 31, 2017 (posted in Premier Pointe News per KHN guidelines)
After making it through the maelstrom of middle age, many adults find themselves approaching older age wondering “what will give purpose to my life?” now that the kids have flown the nest and retirement is in the cards.
How they answer the question can have significant implications for their health.
Over the past two decades, dozens of studies have shown that seniors with a sense of purpose in life are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment, disabilities, heart attacks or strokes, and more likely to live longer than people without this kind of underlying motivation.
Now, a new report in JAMA Psychiatry adds to this body of evidence by showing that older adults with a solid sense of purpose tend to retain strong hand grips and walking speeds — key indicators of how rapidly people are aging.
Why would a psychological construct (“I feel that I have goals and something to live for”) have this kind of impact? Seniors with a sense of purpose may be more physically active and take better care of their health, some research suggests. Also, they may be less susceptible to stress, which can fuel dangerous inflammation.
“Purposeful individuals tend to be less reactive to stressors and more engaged, generally, in their daily lives, which can promote cognitive and physical health,” said Patrick Hill, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis who wasn’t associated with the study.
But what is purpose, really? And how can it be cultivated?
Anne Newman, a 69-year-old who splits her time between Hartsdale, north of New York City, and Delray Beach, Fla., said she’s been asking herself this “on a minute-by-minute basis” since closing her psychotherapy practice late last year.
Building and maintaining a career became a primary driver in her life after Newman raised two daughters and went back to work at age 48. As a therapist, “I really loved helping people make changes in their lives that put them in a different, better position,” she said.
Things became difficult when Newman’s husband, Joseph, moved to Florida and she started commuting back and forth from New York. Over time, the travel took a toll, and Newman decided she didn’t want a long-distance marriage. So, she began winding down her practice and thinking about her next chapter.
Experts advise that people seeking a sense of purpose consider spending more time on activities they enjoy or using work skills in a new way. Newman loves drawing and photography. She has investigated work and volunteer opportunities in Florida, but nothing has grabbed her just yet.
“Not knowing what’s going to take the place of work in my life — it feels horrible, like I’m floundering,” she admitted, in a phone interview.
I didn’t ask myself did I have a larger purpose in life — I asked myself what gives meaning to my life. BARRY DYM