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a man writes on a notpas

Several factors have contributed to my continued participation in the workforce as I’m meandering into my eighth decade, but I can’t really say money rises to the top of the list. That’s not to say My Lovely Wife and I could make ends meet without my weekly paycheck or that the work is so satisfying that I’d do it for free; it’s just that I’m not sure what I would do with myself every day without a few deadlines to meet.

Sure, I could putter around the house — finally muster up the resolve to paint the garage. Maybe launch a concerted counterattack against the creeping Charlie that occupies much of the backyard. There are minor carpentry projects, as well as random stuff that just needs fixing. This is how my older brother, The General, spends his retirement. “You gotta have a reason to get out of bed in the morning,” he tells me.

He’s currently remodeling his bathroom, the sort of project MLW would rightfully veto if I should suggest such a thing. In fact, it’s not difficult to imagine how my wandering around the house eyeing potential home improvements might disturb domestic harmony should I abandon my gainful employment. As a carpenter friend once observed while inspecting my handiwork, “Dude, you are a great . . . editor.”

Still, The General is correct to emphasize the importance of a purposeful life as you move beyond middle age. Research has shown it offers psychological as well as physiological benefits. And a new study suggests that it may even prevent strokes.

Eric Kim, PhD, and his University of Michigan research team dipped into the Health and Retirement Study to select nearly 6,800 older adults who had not suffered a stroke at the time of the 2006 survey. Researchers rated levels of purposefulness among the participants based on their responses to questions such as “I enjoy making plans for the future and working to make them a reality” and “My daily activities often seem trivial and unimportant to me.” Adjusting for various demographic, biological, and psychological factors, the study concluded that those whose questionnaire responses indicated they enjoyed a purposeful life were 22 percent less likely than their less purposeful counterparts to suffer a stroke during the four-year follow-up period.

“Even after adjusting for several risk factors that have been linked with stroke, the effects of purpose remained significant in all models.”

“Even after adjusting for several risk factors that have been linked with stroke, the effects of purpose remained significant in all models, implying that purpose displays a protective effect against stroke above and beyond the effects of the factors we tested,” Kim notes.

Why this would be the case is not completely clear, he admits, but earlier research has shown that purposeful living may improve immune-system functioning, reduce cortisol levels, boost HDL cholesterol production, and promote healthier telomerase activity. “These findings suggest that the benefits of purpose broadly impact the body’s physiological system,” he adds.

Despite the study’s limitations — researchers did not consider genetic vulnerability to strokes, for instance — Kim believes it may help open some doors to clinical interventions in the future. Some studies have found that techniques such as “well-being therapy” and various styles of meditation may be appropriate treatment options for those who lack a strong purpose in their lives.

“If future studies replicate the results from this study,” he argues, “it is sensible to develop and test interventions that enhance purpose and examine if these purpose-raising interventions can protect against stroke.”

Meanwhile, I take heart in the fact that I get to go to work tomorrow and crank through some copy. Maybe I can get The General to come over someday and paint the garage.

Craig Cox
Craig Cox

Craig Cox is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of healthy aging.

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