Old age can certainly be a lonely time in a person’s life. Some people lose their significant other, others have family or friends that move far away, and others develop health problems that make it difficult to move around — leaving the house can become especially burdensome. It’s no wonder why so many older adults become depressed. Living without a purpose is enough of a reason for many people to feel like they should just give up, and doubly so, perhaps, for older adults.

In a new study from the University of Michigan, researchers looked at just how important a sense of purpose is after retirement. What are we supposed to do with all that extra time once we retire, anyway? Unfortunately, many people aren’t able to find meaning in their lives, and when combined with the aforementioned trials of old age, they eventually stop caring for themselves in the way they used to. Cholesterol checks, colonoscopies, mammograms, pap smears, and prostate exams, are basically forgotten.

The study involved data on 7,168 people aged 50 and up who took part in the Health and Retirement Study, which asked them to rate their agreement with statements such as “I have a sense of direction and purpose in my life,” and “My daily activities often seem trivial and unimportant to me.” They found that a higher purpose was associated with a higher likelihood of undergoing preventive treatment.

The study highlights an issue that’s persisted for some time: Older adults aren’t undergoing preventive care like they should, and it’s causing a rise in chronic disease. According to a 2007 report from the Brookings Institution, only four percent of the $1.7 trillion spent on national health went toward preventive care. What’s more, less than 30 percent of adults between 50 and 64, and less than 50 percent of those over 65, have kept a consistent schedule with their doctor for these services. As a result, health spending is higher than ever, and millions of adults are living with chronic diseases, many of which could have been prevented — in the U.S., 75 percent of health care dollars go toward chronic diseases.

Finding a purpose, even if it’s just living with a dog or speaking on the phone with old friends, can have profound benefits to a person’s health. The researchers found that for each extra point of purpose reported, there was a 17 percent decrease in the number of nights a person spent in the hospital. And with each step a person takes to make their life more meaningful, the likeliness that they’ll exercise and relax, rather than worrying, also increases. Thus, life becomes even more meaningful.

Source: Kim E, Strecher V, Ryff C. Purpose in Life and Use of Preventive Health Care Services. PNAS. 2014.