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“We and others have shown that purpose in life is protective against multiple health outcomes in older age,” Lei Yu, PhD, assistant professor of neurological sciences, Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, IL (Reuters June 8, 2015)

Purpose Promotes Health

I’ve long thought that having a reason to get up in the morning is a key factor in living long and staying healthy. It makes sense from the evolutionary standpoint that Mother Nature would do her best to keep productive people around.

Bill Pearl, an inspiration to bodybuilders everywhere, says the best guidance he ever got from his father was to accomplish at least one positive thing every day, even if it’s only cutting the grass. I try to have a meaningful goal every day. I feel “down” if I don’t get up in the morning with a plan. Pearl’s father made it to an active 92, Bill is thriving at 84, and I’m doing pretty well at 77.

Bill Pearl Is perhaps the most respected--and productive--bodybuilder of all time.

Photo taken from "Beyond the Universe: The Bill Pearl Story"

Scientists are finding that purposeful living has health benefits. Emotional and physical well-being go hand in hand.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found that psychological well-being appears to reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular events. A constructive outlook on life appears to foster good health.

We’ve long believed that negative mental states, such as depression, anger, anxiety, and hostility, are harmful to cardiovascular health. A systematic review of more than 200 studies by research fellow Julia K. Boehm and associate professor Laura D. Kubzansky found that the reverse is also true. A positive mental state appears to promote good health. Boehm and Kubzansky found the association between optimism and heart health to be especially noteworthy.

“We found that factors such as optimism, life satisfaction, and happiness are associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases…,” said Boehm. “For example, the most optimistic individuals had an approximately 50% reduced risk of experiencing an initial cardiovascular event, compared to their less optimistic peers.” (Psychological Bulletin April 17, 2012)

Researchers from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago are finding that having a greater purpose in life—the degree to which a person derives meaning from life’s experience—promotes health. Two Rush studies explored the connection between life purpose and brain function, the first on Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and the second on stroke.

Lead by Patricia A. Boyle, PhD, and published in the May 2012 Archives of General Psychiatry, the first study analyzed autopsy results on 246 older adults in the Rush Memory and Aging Project. All of the participants underwent annual physical and psychological evaluations, including a standard assessment of purpose in life, and were followed for up to 10 years.

A definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) can only be made by autopsy to determine if plaques and tangles have formed. Researchers therefore had both cognitive testing results from the clinical exams and markers of AD after death. That allowed them to investigate whether purpose in life slowed the rate of cognitive decline and the relationship to accumulating plaques and tangles.

Participants with a score of 4.2 out of 5 on the purpose-of-life assessment were roughly 2.4 times more likely to remain free of AD than people who scored a 3 or less. Moreover, participants who reported higher levels of purpose in life exhibited better cognitive function despite the burden of the disease. Purpose in life slowed the rate of cognitive decline even as participants accumulated plaques and tangles; purpose apparently helped them cope with AD burden.

“Higher levels of purpose in life reduced the deleterious effects of AD pathologic changes on cognitive decline,” Boyle et al wrote. “These findings suggest that purpose in life provides neural reserve by protecting against the harmful effects of AD pathologic changes on cognitive function in elderly.”

The design of the second Rush study was essentially the same, but the target was stroke (cerebral infarction) and the damage that can follow, including dementia, movement problems, disability, with death the result. Led by Lei Yu, PhD, an assistant professor of neurological science, the study was published in the Journal Stroke. (March 19, 2015)

“We found that a greater sense of purpose in life is associated with 50% reduced likelihood of cerebral infarcts,” the researchers wrote.

“Health conscious adults are encouraged to work actively to improve their sense of meaning in life and goal directedness,” Dr. Yu said.

Finally, researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Center reported to the American Heart Association Lifestyle 2015 Scientific Session in Baltimore that a high sense of purpose in life may lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, and death; their meta-analysis of 10 studies involving 137,000 people found a 23 percent reduction in death from all causes and a 19 percent reduced risk of heart attack, stroke, or the need for coronary artery bypass or stenting.

“As part of our overall health, each of us needs to ask ourselves the critical question of ‘do I have a sense of purpose in my life?’ If not, you need to work toward the important goal of obtaining one for your overall well-being,” lead author and preventive cardiologist Randy Cohen, MD, told the conference.

Possible Explanations

You are probably wondering, as I was, how scientists explain the connection between purposeful living and health. The precise mechanism(s) are unclear, but there are a number of possible explanations. The simplest explanation and the one I like best is that purpose encourages healthy living; purposeful people are more likely to take care of themselves. Complicating this explanation is that positive results persist after adjusting for lifestyle risk factors such as being overweight, smoking, bad diet, and sedentary living. Another plus is that purposeful living tends to be is less stressful.  Psychological well-being correlates with neurotransmitters that balance brain function. Purposeful living may also have anti-inflammatory, and brain-stimulating effects. Whatever the mechanisms, a large and impressive body of research confirms the purpose-health connection.                   

*  *  *

I am convinced that purposeful living has given me a leg up on health.

Purposeful people tend to have healthier blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight, and are also more likely to exercise, eat healthy, get enough sleep, and avoid smoking. So we have a chicken or the egg issue. We don’t know whether a purposeful outlook makes people more inclined to take care of themselves—or whether living healthier makes people feel more optimistic and purposeful.

It makes little practical difference. We win either way. If a positive purposeful outlook makes us more inclined to exercise and eat healthy, we win. But we also win if active living and healthy eating make us feel good and motivate us to stay the course.

Decide what’s important and work toward making it happen. The advice from Bill Pearl’s father is a good place to start. Find something meaningful to do every day—preferably something you enjoy and do well. Your heart and brain will reward you. Your family and friends probably will as well.

July 1, 2015

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