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Sense of purpose good for senior health, study says

March 8, 2013

Whether through volunteering or continuing education, many older adults seek out personal meaning during retirement, and a new study suggests that doing so could be good for their health. Researchers from the University of Michigan found that seniors who felt they had a great purpose in life had a lower risk of suffering a stroke and enjoyed greater overall well-being.

The findings, which were published recently in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, relied on data from the Health and Retirement Study, an expansive survey that polled Americans 50 and older. To measure the impact of purpose on stroke risk, scientists looked at how stroke-free participants answered certain questions relating to their life views such as their daily lives and future plans.

"Even after adjusting for several risk factors that have been linked with stroke, the effects of purpose remained significant in all models, implying that purpose displays a protective effect against stroke above and beyond the effects of the factors we tested," said lead author Eric Kim.

Stroke is among the most serious threats to a healthy lifestyle for seniors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, and often causes disability in its aftermath. 

These findings are just the latest to suggest that any type of engagement - social, physical or mental - can play a significant role in healthy aging. Some of the most compelling evidence comes from a 2009 study conducted at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. After studying more than 830 people, the team found that people who had higher levels of social activity and social support also enjoyed better cognitive function.