Yesterday Paula Span, who contributes to the New Old Age blog at The New York Times, reported on some recent studies about the benefits of having a purpose in late life.
Although not definitive, the research discoveries about purpose (or lack thereof) in her story are impressive:
”It turns out that purpose has long associated with satisfaction and happiness, better physical functioning, even better sleep,” reports Span. “'It’s a very robust predictor of health and wellness in old age,' said Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago.”
More, purpose may also provide some protection against dementia:
”Following almost 1,000 people (age 80, on average) for up to seven years, Dr. Boyle’s team found that the ones with high purpose scores were 2.4 times more likely to remain free of Alzheimer’s than those with low scores; they were also less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor.
“'It also slowed the rate of cognitive decline by about 30 percent, which is a lot,' Dr. Boyle added.”
(An abstract of the study an be found at the Journal of the American Medical Association.)
It gets better. An earlier study of Dr. Boyle's points to healthier, longer lives of people with purpose:
”Purposeful people were less likely to develop disabilities. And they were less likely to die: a sample of 1,238 people followed for up to five years (average age: 78) by Rush researchers found that those with high purpose had roughly half the mortality rate of those with low purpose.”
”This protective effect holds through the years, according to a recent study by Dr. [Patrick] Hill, which relied on a national longitudinal study that enrolled 7,100 Americans aged 20 to 75.
“Those who died, in all age groups, scored significantly lower on purpose-in-life scales.
“The researchers looked at whether purpose had less effect after retirement, when 'you’re starting to lose those structures you had, a natural way to organize your daily life,' Dr. Hill said. Somewhat to his surprise, work status didn’t matter.”
Like me, you might be wondering how these researchers are defining such a squishy quality as purpose. Span apparently had the the same question:
”It’s a hard quality to measure, so researchers rely on how strongly people agree or disagree with statements like these:
“Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.”
“I feel good when I think of what I have done in the past and what I hope to do in the future.”
“I live life one day at a time and do not really think about the future.”
“I sometimes feel as if I have done all there is to do in life.”
Purpose is not a quality that, like height or weight, can be quantified but these definitions work for me. Common sense alone tells us that purpose and goals are more likely than not to give us reason to get out of bed in the morning. Can better health be far behind?
I got lucky – with no effort or thought to the future, I was still working when I began following my curiosity about what it was going to be like to be old and that morphed into this blog.
Ten years in, it's gratifying to know that many readers find it valuable and that makes the effort purposeful beyond the personal. But even if no one were reading TGB, I would be doing the work; my interest hasn't flagged and there is still far more I don't know than what I do know.
In addition, that interest has led to my involvement in the Villages movement resulting in becoming a founding member of Three Rivers Village. Let me tell you a little story about that:
Not long ago, an acquaintance told me that he felt bad about joining our Village development group because a big part of his reason is the opportunity to meet new people.
I've heard similar reservations from others who volunteer in a variety of organizations. They seem to feel that it's a cheat, that their volunteerism is somehow morally suspect if their secondary, or even primary goal is personal gain.
I see it differently. How can any of us go wrong if, in attempting to help ourselves, we also helps others? Everyone wins. And I've never met anyone who volunteers in any capacity who doesn't benefit personally in many ways – feeling better about him/herself, learning new skills, even lifting depression plus making new friends.
When I moved here in 2010, I didn't know anyone. After I felt settled in, I found some volunteer work to do, met some people, followed my interests in aging that led, last year, to the beginning of our Village. Like the acquaintance mentioned above, my intentions in these endeavors were not and are not entirely altruistic or “pure.”
Although I strongly believe that Villages will be – are becoming – a crucially important element in elders helping one another as we age and it makes me feel good to know that our Village will be part of that, another serious motivation is to ensure that it will be there for me when I need help getting by day to day.
Does that make the work I do with the other Village volunteers less valuable? I don't believe that for a minute. Nor do I think mixed motivation detracts from the health benefits these researchers are discovering.
To be clear, purpose is not necessarily about volunteering. This blog, hardly a volunteer organization, has given me a hugely satisfying sense of purpose for the past ten years, and whatever gives your life meaning serves you well as purpose.
You can read all of Paula Span's article on purpose here. (Hat tip to all who sent this to me.)
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Vicki E. Jones: The Interview