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A Reason to Live

July 15, 2019

So you've made it through middle age and now you're officially a "senior" citizen, somewhere around the age of 65 when most people become eligible for Medicare.  It seems that suddenly being eligible for Medicare is a turning point into older age for many people, although there are many others who say that turning 70 is really the birthday that feels they've finally moved into "old age."

At 70 or older, the children are long gone (at least there should be no more adult children living in the basement playing video games), most individuals are retired or perhaps working a small part-time job and days are structured around doctor appointments, maybe a lunch out with friends.  It could be the occasional dinner out with family or grandchildren.  But the reality for many seniors is a quiet, uneventful time of life where medical problems or just the aches and pains of older age take up a lot of attention and time to manage properly.

Over the past two decades, dozens of studies have shown that seniors with a sense of purpose in life are less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease, mild cognitive impairment, disabilities, heart attacks or strokes, and more likely to live longer than people without this kind of underlying motivation.

A study in 2017 and reported in JAMA Psychiatry showed that older adults with a sense of purpose tended to retain strong hand grips and walking speeds--key indicators of how rapidly people were aging.  But why would a psychological construct ("I feel I have goals and something to live for") have this kind of impact?

It turns out that seniors with a sense of purpose are typically more physically active and take better care of their health, as shown by numerous studies.  Also, they may be less susceptible to stress, which can cause dangerous inflammation.

So what is "purpose" and how can it be cultivated?  Building a career or working at a specific job and getting better at it over the years is most often what gives people a sense of purpose in their lives.  But what happens when individuals retire and no longer have that job to go to?  Those seniors who "reinvent" themselves or take up hobbies they've thought about doing but never had time for while working, often find a new sense of purpose for their lives. 

Many people may go through a period of trial and error after retiring, trying to find the right interest or hobby or volunteer position.  But that can take time and being patient with this phase of life can lead to much less stress and higher levels of contentment. 

If it's a sincere effort, most seniors will find something along the way that provides that sense of purpose they felt when they were younger, or working, or more involved in raising their families.  It becomes a matter of perspective and realizing that it may take time to find the perfect hobby or interest.  And those may change with advancing age and mobility but if the search continues, the individual eventually finds what they are looking for and that can lead to a much more fulfilled and happy "old age!"

 

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