Why are we here? What is our greater purpose? And what is the meaning of life? Existential questions such as these are more than captivating, they are considered to be fundamental to the human condition.
What if having or finding a purpose could help you live longer, be neuroprotective and reduce your risk of cancer, dementia and other neurodegenerative disease?
Purposeful living has been defined in various ways. In general, purpose in life can be defined as “a self-organizing life aim that stimulates goals, promotes healthy behaviors, and gives meaning to life."
Man’s desire to find a purpose in life may even have played a crucial role in our development as a species, when we needed to band together against predators and the elements to survive. Purpose and meaning are biologically wired into our thinking and necessary for optimal health. Recent studies in neuroscience have identified a part of the brain, the posterior superior temporal cortex that seems to be hard-wired for contribution.
Multiple other studies show similar results: physical and brain health along with longevity are closely tied to purpose. It may not matter so much what this is, but that you have a purpose whether it’s raising children or enjoy your grandkids, volunteering and giving back, or generally being a kind and nonjudgmental individual.
I’m fortunate to have had a real-life example of these studies and their results. My grandmother Toman lived to be 101 and she never lost her memory, working in her garden until the day she died and always planning on what to do next for the ones she loved. (I can only hope I and my own children inherited HER genes!)
A 2016 paper in Psychosomatic Medicine, for example, that used data from ten studies with over 136,000 participants showed that strong life purpose was also associated with reduced risk of mortality and cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks or stroke.
Another study at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago studied more than 1,500 seniors since 1997. All were free of dementia at the start of the study. During the study time frame, 246 participants died and their brains were autopsied for signs of plaques and tangles, which build up in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s. Most of the brains showed significant numbers of plagues and tangles, but those with a strong sense of purpose did tend to score higher on tests of memory and thinking. These findings do seem to suggest then that purpose in life can protect the workings of our brains even as we age.
And, in a recent study published in JAMA Current Open, maintaining this same type of life purpose in life was associated with lower all-cause mortality. Researchers also added that a mindfulness-based practice as part of having a life purpose (e.g. gratitude, being nonjudgmental, prayer and meditation) often result in a sense of heightened control, calm, peace and serenity, even in the face of the many uncontrollable elements of disease and life stressors.
Physiologically, the beneficial mechanisms revolve around lowering inflammatory cytokines such as interleukin 6 and cortisol and decreased expression of pro-inflammatory genes. There is also a rush of neurochemicals released with altruism including dopamine (our compassion and “feel good” hormone serotonin (that boosts mood) and endorphins, which act like a “natural morphine,” reducing pain and improving performance. Many believe that having a purpose also affects “cognitive reserve,” or the biological strength and resilience of the brain cells to injury and degradation.
Many of the researchers who were so compelled, impressed and almost shocked by these studies will say that the need for meaning and purpose is absolutely paramount and potentially the deepest influencer of well-being.
Grandma Toman had endless biological grit and resilience that carried her through even the most challenging days, but with the benefit of a strong connection to her purpose-driven life.
I’d say it’s all about being a part of something bigger then yourself, seeing the world as one and knowing that everything – really, everything -- is interconnected. And that absolutely everything matters now and in the end. We really are ALL here for a purpose.
As my grandmother would say – Zivijio!
Dr. Suzy Gazda
True happiness... is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.
May 24, 2019 JAMA Netw Open. 2019; 2(5)
Association Between Life Purpose and Mortality Among US Adults Older Than 50 Years: Aliya Alimujiang, MPH; Ashley Wiensch, MPH; Jonathan Boss, MS; et al
Patricia A. Boyle Ph.D., Aron S. Buchman, M.D., Robert S. Wilson, Ph.D.: “Effect of Purpose in Life on the Relation Between Alzheimer Disease Pathologic Changes on Cognitive Function in Advanced Age.” Volume 69, Number 5, May 2012
“Purpose in Life and Its Relationship to All-Cause Mortality and Cardiovascular Events: A Meta-Analysis.” Cohen, Randy MD, MS; Bavishi, Chirag MD, MPH; Rozanski, Alan MD. Psychosomatic Medicine: February/March 2016 - Volume 78 - Issue 2 - p 122–133
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Dr. Suzanne Gazda, Integrative Neurology