Parents and educators yearn to help young adults find a sense of direction and purpose in life. We know how important that can be for their future success and happiness.
But a recent group of studies suggests that purpose may be just as important to older adults, helping prevent cognitive and physical declines that can accompany aging.
In one study, researchers tested people whose ages ranged from 32 to 84 on their memory and on cognitive skills, like focusing attention and keeping track of instructions, that help us plan ahead.
Results showed that, regardless of education levels or perceptions of their own health, adults at all ages—the elderly included—showed higher cognitive abilities if they had a greater sense of purpose. This means that purpose in life could protect us against cognitive decline as we age—a finding that complements prior research suggesting that purpose may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and its cognitive effects.
Research this year also tied having a purpose to better physical functioning. In one study led by researchers at Northwestern University, having a sense of purpose led to better sleep patterns in older adults—a finding that could have far-ranging effects, given the connection between good sleep and health. Purpose has also been shown to lead to fewer hospitalizations and to less severe problems with mobility and hand-grip strength—two important markers of physical functioning in the elderly.
In combination with earlier findings that link purpose to better health and lower disease risk, these studies lend more credence to the claim that a sense of purpose is an important component of a healthy lifestyle for older adults. Fortunately, other research published this year suggests that older adults can foster a sense of purpose through deliberate activities, giving hope to all who want to nudge themselves toward a purpose-filled life.
---From The Science of a Meaningful Life