When I was 5 years old, I distinctly remember the day the police knocked at our door. They were there to ask if my mother could accompany them to the home of our neighbours. The Harpers were an elderly couple, both in their eighties living independently in an older home immediately beside our home. That day Mr. Harper had died suddenly while driving his car. Fortunately no one else was injured. The police felt that it would help Mrs. Harper if my mother was there when they told her the news. My mother did her best to help, but I remember her later telling me that that Mrs. Harper looked lost when she heard the news. Less than two months later, she died in her sleep.
Later, during my family practice years, I came to realize that this was not uncommon. Long-married spouses often die shortly after each other, even when the widow has no known health conditions. With these couples, their sense of purpose is lost with the death of their spouse, and with this loss, their health often diminishes rapidly.
Purpose, as a biomarker of better health outcomes has been shown in multiple studies. A meta- analysis of 10 studies, totalling over 136,000 seniors showed that those with a high sense of purpose in life lived longer and had fewer heart attacks and strokes. Adjusting for all other factors, having a high sense of purpose in seniors reduced mortality by 20%. While mechanisms are unclear, they seem are likely similar to the way that strong social relationships lead to better health through a combination of behavioural, psychosocial and physiological differences.
Other studies, across broader age ranges, show similar longevity effects along with decreased rates of Alzeimher’s disease, mild cognitive impairment or disabilities in general. Simply put, having purpose improves health and longevity.
Most recently, a study in seniors showed that those with a higher sense of purpose maintained stronger hand grips and better walking speeds - both key biomarkers for ageing. Current research is exploring the mechanisms that support these findings.
So while we wait to fully understand why having a high sense of purpose improves health and longevity, it makes sense for each of us to foster our purpose.
The question is how?
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Dr. Brendan Byrne