One of the biggest goals and challenges of growing older is the ability to remain functional. Nearly 1 in 3 adults over age 65 reports difficulty walking three city blocks. A new study in JAMA Psychiatry suggests that as one ages, a higher sense of purpose in life is associated with a better functional status.
Dr. Eric Kim, a research fellow in the Department of Social and Behavior Sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health, and colleagues studied adults age 50 and older from the Health and Retirement Study, a collection of data created to represent the U.S. population.
They surveyed participants in 2006 who had a normal functional status to determine their baseline level of purpose in life. They then analyzed hand-grip strength and walking speed, two well-studied markers of functional status, in 2006 and then repeated the assessment in 2010. They found that in approximately 4,500 patients, a higher purpose in life was associated with a smaller decline in hand grip strength four years later. Similarly, in approximately 1,500 patients, researchers found that a higher purpose in life was associated with a smaller decline in walking speed four years later.
Dr. Kim’s study adds to our understanding of healthy aging. Purpose in life is a universal concept that extends across cultures. The Japanese call it ikigai and the French call it raison d’etre.
As one grows older, one’s ikigai can become more and more elusive as children move away or work feels more and more mundane. Dr. Kim’s research shows us that as we age, keeping a high sense of meaning and direction in life can limit one’s decline in walking speed and hand-grip strength.
Conscientious efforts to maintain social relationships, set new life goals, or help in the community can be important steps in enjoying a good functional status.
The study has several caveats.
First, the study suggests that having purpose in life has a positive effect on functional status. However, the study does not prove this relationship. There may be factors other than purpose in life that were not accounted for by the researchers and explain the change in functional status observed in the study. In addition, purpose in life is only one part of healthy aging. It is still important to pay attention to staying active and eating a healthy diet.
Overall, Dr. Kim’s study suggests that working to maintain purpose in life may be in our best interest as we age.
Anant Mandawat, a graduate of Lakeside High School and Yale University’s medical school, is a doctor of internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.