Living with Purpose: Greater Purpose in Life May Protect against Cognitive Decline

Previous research has documented benefits of having greater purpose in life, such as better health, longevity, and physical functioning, and possibly better cognitive health. A new study in this line of research investigated whether purpose in life can not only slow cognitive decline, but also protect older adults from risk factors for cognitive decline such as age, sex, and race/ethnicity.

To do this, the researchers used data from the Health and Retirement Study. The data included responses from more than 11,500 adults (average age 73) who participated in 2006 or 2008, and then four years later. They completed measures of cognitive function, purpose in life, age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, income, and health characteristics.

The researchers found that, after controlling for demographic and health variables, higher purpose in life was related to better cognitive function. In addition, certain demographic characteristics were related to more cognitive decline. For example, cognitive functioning declined with age, as might be expected, but sense of purpose had an interesting effect here: Older adults who had a higher sense of purpose showed slower cognitive decline.

There was a similar pattern for the cultural characteristics captured by race—black older adults tended to show greater cognitive decline than whites, but having a higher sense of purpose helped negate this effect. Being male or Hispanic were also associated with more cognitive decline; however, higher purpose did not have an impact on these risk factors.

Overall, these results show the importance of having a sense of purpose in later life. Older adults with a greater sense of purpose tend to have goals and aspirations for the future, find meaning in day-to-day activities, and have a sense of direction. One explanation for these protective effects is that having purpose may encourage older adults to engage in more healthy behaviors and manage stress better.


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Kim G, Shin SH, Scicolone MA, and Parmelee P. Purpose in life protects against cognitive decline among older adults. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry (2019); 27(6): 593-601.

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