- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2009

You thought a perfect exercise and diet plan would bring you longevity? Think again. New research shows that having a higher purpose in life in those fall and winter years of human existence is just as important.

“Many people think of aging as a time of inevitable decline. But if you’re active and involved in something that brings meaning to your life, you can reduce your mortality risk significantly,” says Patricia Boyle, a lead researcher at Rush University Medical Center.

Ms. Boyle and her colleagues studied 1,238 seniors (age 78 when the study began) for up to five years to test the hypothesis that — all other things (meaning overall health) being equal — having a greater purpose in life is associated with a lower mortality rate.

The study was funded by the National Institutes on Aging.

As it turns out, seniors with high purpose in life were about half as likely to die over the follow-up period compared to seniors with low purpose.

So, what exactly does “high purpose” mean?

“It’s whatever brings meaning to your life,” Ms. Boyle says.

It differs from person to person.

“For some it means connecting to the world beyond their own lives. Being part of something bigger. For others it means spending time with family,” she says. “And for some it means fulfilling a personal life goal, like learning Japanese.”

What it does not mean is waking up every day and feeling like “I’ve done everything there is to do in life - I’m done,” she says.

In other words, feeling resigned and irrelevant are not associated with “high purpose” or good outcomes.

The study’s findings don’t surprise Dr. Thomas Perls, founder and director of the New England Centenarian Study (www.bumc.bu.edu /centenarian) and an associate professor of medicine and geriatrics at Boston University.

“We find that using a lot of humor in life, managing stress, having a positive attitude are associated with good outcomes,” Dr. Perls says.

On the flip side, persistent stress and an inability to manage it will adversely affect health, says Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity and a professor of psychology.

“It’s unlikely that social distress is a direct cause of disease,” Ms. Carstensen says, “but if you already have [a disease] social distress will move it along.”

Of course, a happy-go-lucky, low-stress attitude doesn’t come naturally to everyone, Dr. Perls acknowledges.

“There are numerous ways to counteract neurotic tendencies,”he says. “For some, it’s yoga; for others, it’s meditation.”

But whatever it is, it’s probably worth figuring out because, according to Dr. Perls’ research, seniors with this ability were able to reduce their risk of mortality from heart disease and diabetes by up to 60 percent.

The link between mental well-being and physical well-being is established, but exactly what it constitutes needs more research, Ms. Boyle says.

“It’s clear that purpose in life is somehow optimizing physiology,” she says, “but we don’t know exactly how.”

In fact, the branch of medical research that studies mental well-being as it relates to physical well-being is fairly small and new compared to the segment studying disease and treatments.

“Traditionally, medical research was focused on predictors of disease and early intervention,” Ms. Boyle says. “It still is, and to a certain extent, it needs to be. But I think the tide is starting to change as people are living longer.”

In the meantime — as well-being research is catching up — there are a few things people can do, she says.

“I think the take-home message is that people need to be thoughtful about their lives, because having that sense of meaning or purpose will make a huge difference,” she says.

You might even say it’s a matter of life or death.

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