Finding the 'meaning of life' may be key to staying healthy into old age

Elderly people with "purpose" tend to be healthier. [Photo: Getty]
Elderly people with "purpose" tend to be healthier. [Photo: Getty]

Finding the “meaning of life” may be key to staying healthy into old age, research suggests.

Scientists from the University of California, San Diego, looked at more than 1,000 people between 21 and over 100 years old.

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They found the over 60-year-olds with “purpose” were in better shape both physically and mentally.

Contentment in the way life has played out is thought to motivate elderly people to better look after themselves.

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The UK life expectancy was 79 for men and 82 for women in 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics.

While good health allows many to live well into their seventies and beyond, everything from heart disease and cancer to dementia and arthritis becomes more common with age.

The scientists set out to uncover whether finding the meaning of life could affect wellbeing.

“When you are young, like in your 20s, you are unsure about your career, a life partner, and who you are as a person,” study author Dr Dilip Jeste said.

“You are searching for meaning in life.

“As you start to get into your 30s, 40s, and 50s, you have more established relationships, maybe you are married and have a family, and you are settled in a career.

“The search decreases and the meaning in life increases.

“After age 60, things begin to change.

He added: “People retire from their job and [may] start to lose their [sense of] identity.

“They start to develop health issues and some of their friends and family begin to pass away.

“They start searching for the meaning in life again because the meaning they once had has changed.”

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To learn more about the impact of this, the scientists analysed participants of the Successful Aging Evaluation.

The participants completed a “meaning in life” questionnaire, which asked whether they identified with statements like, “I am seeking a purpose or mission for my life” or “I have discovered a satisfying life purpose”.

Their physical and mental wellbeing, and cognitive status, was also assessed.

Results, published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, show the participants were most likely to have “discovered” the meaning of life at 60.

While health declined with age, it was better in those who felt their life had purpose.

These individuals also reported improved mental wellbeing. Those that were searching for meaning, however, had worse cognitive function.

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“The medical field is beginning to recognise meaning in life is a clinically relevant and potentially modifiable factor, which can be targeted to enhance wellbeing and functioning,” study author Dr Awais Aftab said.

Dr Jeste will soon research whether other personal attributes - like wisdom, loneliness and compassion - affect a person’s quest for meaning.

“It's an exciting time in this field as we are seeking to discover evidence-based answers to some of life's most profound questions,” he said.

“We also want to examine if some biomarkers of stress and ageing are associated with searching and finding the meaning in life.”

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