A sense of purpose can benefit your heart and brain

April 5, 2015
OLGA HORAK
OLGA HORAK

When I first meet Olga Horak, she’s arguing with a young man in her office at the Sydney Jewish Museum. At 88, she radiates intelligence, wisdom and elegance. She’s holding her ground with quiet dignity on a point about the Nazi death camps. “I was there,” she reminds him. For the past 25 years, Olga has worked as a volunteer at the museum, currently for three half-days a week. She talks from an Auschwitz survivor’s perspective to school children, groups of police and nurses, and other visitors about World War 11, the Holocaust and its lasting impact. It’s important to her that people never forget but also that they get accurate information, even if it leads to argument. The role has given her, particularly in these years of widowhood, a strong sense of purpose.

“Coming here gets me out, gives me a duty to perform,” she says. “To know I’m still needed, even appreciated….That’s the point at this age….to be needed, to be appreciated, to give something.”

Increasingly scientists are finding that people like Olga, for all the tragedy they may have experienced, are lucky in some ways. They’ve found a sense of purpose in life, a reason to get up in the morning, a passion. And having a sense of purpose may be the factor that keeps them alive longer, forestalls cognitive decline, even dementia, and reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke.

It’s hard to define ‘sense of purpose’. But the latest research released in March through Mt Sinai Medical Centre in the US defines it as a sense of meaning and direction, and a feeling that life’s worth living. It’s about having aims and objectives, and believing what you do matters.

To measure how strong is people’s sense of purpose researchers ask questions like these: “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them,” and “I feel good when I think of what I’ve done in the past and what I hope to do in the future;” or “I live one day at a time and do not really think about the future.” People rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 5.

Finding a sense of purpose if you lack one is a task, it seems, as important as exercise and eating well. “Developing and refining your sense of purpose could protect your heart health and potentially save your life,” Randy Cohen, a preventive cardiologist, and lead author of the new study, told Science Daily. His analysis of ten studies involving 137,000 people, presented at a meeting of the American Heart Association last month, found that a high sense of purpose is associated with a 23 per cent reduction in death from all causes and a 19 per cent reduced risk of heart attack, stroke, or the need for coronary artery bypass surgery.

“As part of our overall health,” he said, “each of us needs to ask ourselves the critical question of ‘do I have a sense of purpose in my life?’ If not, you need to work toward the important goal of obtaining one for your overall well-being.”

‘Sense of purpose’ has emerged as crucial in the work of other scientists, including Patricia Boyle, a neuroscientist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Centre in Chicago. Following 900 people (age 80 on average) for up to seven years, she’s found those with high purpose scores were 2.4 times more likely to remain free of Alzheimer’s than those without. More recently her work based on brain autopsies of a subset of 246 of her original participants revealed many of the purposeful did have the plaques and tangles that are markers of Alzheimer’s. But they had tended to score higher on tests of memory and thinking, raising the possibility a strong sense of purpose was protective.

As a financial adviser, Frans Van Schilt, 61, had urged clients to ponder possible post-work sources of esteem and vitality. But he’d neglected to do so himself. So when he retired from the business he’d run with a partner for a decade, he had to start from scratch. Golf was on his list but so was mentoring. And with The Smith Family, he’s found a passion. Through its iTrack program he conducts online chats with disadvantaged teens to help them focus on education and career goals. “It didn’t initially grab me,” he said. “When I did get involved it was fantastic. I asked ‘what more can I do?’ I felt energised; I had a sense of purpose.”

Australian researcher Audrey Guy, who was awarded her PhD in her mid 70s for her thesis on successful ageing, concluded ‘sense of purpose’ and ‘feeling part of the community’ were the two key ingredients: “The current concept of retirement as merely a time of endless leisure,” she’s argued, “needs to be recognised as a deterrent to successful physically and mentally healthy ageing.”

For many older people being useful to their family, immersion in a hobby or further education can provide the meaning to their lives. For others finding a purpose, especially in paid work, is made more difficult by ageism and discrimination. As Olga Horak heads towards 90, her work has taken on a sense of urgency: “As you get older you remember the past more and you tend to talk about it a lot because you’re scared one day you may not be able to remember….”

Is it easier or harder to hang on to a sense of purpose as we get older? Please comment.

Coming of Age is updated every Monday. Click ‘Subscribe for free’ to have it emailed to you.

For those interested I’m on a panel with Olga as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.