A Higher Purpose: Examining Links between Sense of Purpose & Healthy Behavior in Older Adults

Much research has touted the benefits of having a sense of purpose and direction in life, including better immune functioning and increased longevity. There is some evidence that healthy lifestyles underlie these benefits; to confirm this, one study investigated older adults’ sense of purpose and engagement in healthy behaviors over eight years.

This study used data from more than 13,000 adults age 50 and better who participated in the Health and Retirement Study. Every four years from 2008 to 2016, participants responded to measures of their sense of purpose, amount of physical activity, sleep problems, alcohol use, smoking behavior, and body mass index (BMI). Analyses also controlled for the effects of demographic characteristics, health conditions, and depression. Only participants who engaged in healthy behavior at the outset were included in this study.

Older adults who reported a higher sense of purpose were more likely to maintain healthy physical activity levels and BMI, as well as develop fewer sleep problems over eight years, compared to those reporting a lower sense of purpose. They were also slightly less likely to begin smoking again after previously quitting. Heavy alcohol use (more than 14 drinks per week for men, seven for women) was not associated with sense of purpose. By examining healthy behaviors over time, researchers were also able to determine that engaging in healthy behavior did not lead to changes in sense of purpose.

One theory the researchers proposed for these findings was related to stress. Previous research has shown that when people experience higher stress, they tend to be more sedentary, have more trouble sleeping, and engage in comfort eating. People who have higher purpose, however, are less negatively affected by stress and would thus more easily maintain healthy behaviors. Regardless of the actual mechanism, sense of purpose seems to play a clear role in one’s physical health. Engaging in meaningful activities and living a purposeful life is one step older adults can take toward maintaining a healthy lifestyle.


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Kim ES, Shiba K, Boehm JK, and Kubzansky LD. Sense of purpose in life and five health behaviors in older adults. Preventive Medicine 2020;139(106172).

Self-Fulfilling ProphecyHow Perceptions of Aging Affect Our Later Years

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