Preserve Heart Health By Having A Purpose In Life

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Finding direction comes with a wealth of support systems, which ultimately work to keep you alive longer. Matthias Mueller, CC BY 2.0

Wandering through life without direction or goals could be detrimental to your health, a new large-scale study finds. People who reported a lack of meaning in their lives faced a 23 percent greater risk for all causes of death and a 19 percent greater risk for those related to conditions of the heart.

It isn’t necessarily the case that finding meaning in life inherently makes you less likely to die — people who see the big picture still fall victim to disease and bad luck like the rest of us. But researchers believe there’s great value in the social support and optimism that comes with a richer set of guiding principles. With more resources at our disposal, both tangibly and spiritually, we arm ourselves to fight death with greater force.

Dr. Randy Cohen, lead author of the new study and preventive cardiologist at Mount Sinai St. Luke's and Mount Sinai Roosevelt, says building a fulfilling life in pursuit of something greater brings with it a host of practical benefits. “As part of our overall health,” he said in a press release, “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.”

Cohen and a team of researchers analyzed data on more than 137,000 people from 10 relevant studies. They tracked people’s rate of death according to their sense of purpose in life, ultimately finding it was the people who felt fulfilled that suffered fewer strokes and heart attacks and needed fewer coronary artery bypass surgeries and procedures to install cardiac stents. Alan Rozanski, study co-author and Director of Wellness and Prevention Programs for Mount Sinai Heart, says the findings build on prior work into the boosting effects social support can have on depression and anxiety.

A sense of direction doesn’t just help us in the short term, even though that is critical to deciding what to eat for breakfast and which shirt to wear. It also sets us on a course for years, sometimes an entire lifetime. When we dedicate ourselves to something, we engage in the practice with all aspects of our attention and energy. Life feels less frightening when we know where we’re headed, hopefully to the extent we can enjoy the experiences as they come. By the time we’ve hit old age, the meaning becomes clear: Multiple studies have found senior citizens are less likely to face Alzheimer’s and late-age ill health when they maintain a sense of purpose.

Upcoming research should examine ways to help people without this sense of direction stay healthy, the researchers conclude. Their data will be presented at the upcoming American Heart Association EPI/Lifestyle 2015 Scientific Sessions in Baltimore.

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