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Finding life’s meaning can keep us healthy as we age

Dec. 23, 2019 Medical News Today

The older people get, the more their lives might change. For example, their friends and relatives may reach the ends of their lives, and people’s careers may begin to wind down.

According to a new study paper appearing in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, crossing this threshold reawakens people’s need to find meaning in life.

The study, which researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine conducted, finds a link between having a sense of meaning and positive physical, mental, and cognitive functioning.

“Those with meaning in life are happier and healthier than those without it,” says senior study author Dilip V. Jeste.

A new priority

Although a search for meaning may be on our minds at various times in our lives, the new study suggests that when our lives are full of family, friends, and careers, it tends to fade into the background.

“When you are young, like in your 20s, you are unsure about your career, a life partner, and who you are as a person. You are searching for meaning in life,” says Jeste.

However, “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.”

Jeste continues: “After age 60, things begin to change. 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.”

As we become older, there seems to be a pressing need to know what we should be doing with — and what we should be feeling about — our remaining time.

For many people, finding meaning becomes a prerequisite for a happy ending to one’s life story. Without it, suggests the study, our declining years and the difficulties they may involve may be dominated by stress and its physical consequences.

Who participated in the study?

The researchers drew their correlations from 1,042 adults who took part in the Successful Aging Evaluation from January 2013 to June 2014.

The participants were residents of adult communities in San Diego County, CA. They were aged 21–100+.

The researchers performed three evaluations:

  • “A Meaning in Life Questionnaire” captured each participant’s current relationship with meaning, categorized as “Search” or “Presence.” The team asked the participants to identify with different statements, such as, “I am seeking a purpose or mission for my life,” or, “I have discovered a satisfying life purpose.”
  • Each participant self-reported their physical condition and mental status.
  • Each participant took part in a phone interview as a means of assessing their cognitive status.

What the study found

In terms of searching for meaning versus acquiring it, the data showed a striking inverse relationship between the two at age 60: “Presence” reached its highest level at that age, while “Search” hit its lowest.

This suggests that for many people, there was no further need to keep searching for meaning at that point; they had found it by the time they turned 60.

Using statistical models, the researchers found that physical condition correlated negatively with older age but positively with Presence. In fact, the correlation grew even stronger beyond the age of 60.

Mental well-being was positively associated with aging and Presence but negatively with Search. Cognitive function was negatively linked to advancing age and Search.

The study’s conclusion is that finding meaning in one’s life constitutes a sound strategy for thriving in later years — in part because it supports the preservation of a person’s physical and mental well-being.

As first study author Awais Aftab explains, “The medical field is beginning to recognize that meaning in life is a clinically relevant and potentially modifiable factor, which can be targeted to enhance [people’s] well-being and functioning.”

Jeste says, “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.”

His upcoming research will focus on other personal attributes — including wisdom, loneliness, and compassion — and how they may affect a person’s search for meaning.

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

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