One Secret to a Long, Happy Retirement

Health Writer

A sense of purpose is a good thing to have at any stage of life. But as you approach retirement age it can be especially important. Medical researchers are finding that people with a sense of purpose appear to benefit in numerous ways, both physically and mentally, compared with their purposeless peers.

One recent study, for example, found a strong relationship between a sense of purpose, as measured by subjects’ answers on psychological tests, and greater longevity.

That held true throughout adulthood and into retirement, according to the study, which was reported in the July 2014 issue of Psychological Science. For retirees, the researchers hypothesized that “purpose may prove more beneficial later in life by combating the loss of life structure and organization that employment provides.”

Another 2014 study suggested one possible explanation for purposeful people living longer: They may take advantage of more preventive care services.

That study, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014, found that men and women with a sense of purpose were more likely to have had cholesterol tests, colonoscopies, mammograms, pap smears, and prostate examinations. Perhaps not surprisingly, they were less likely to be hospitalized as well.

A greater sense of purpose may also help stave off Alzheimer’s disease or its precursor, mild cognitive impairment, according to a study reported in The Archives of General Psychiatry in March 2010. A study in the same journal in May 2012 found that even among patients with Alzheimer’s, having a greater sense of purpose reduced the deleterious effects of the disease.

Staying engaged in life

All of this squares with the experience of Claudia Landau, M.D., Ph.D., chief of geriatrics and palliative care at Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif, and an associate clinical professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health.

Early in her career she remembers working with a group of World War I veterans, all over the age of 90. Asked to account for their longevity and relatively good health, they cited a common reason: a desire to learn and stay engaged with life. One of them had just started to study Japanese.

“When people feel more engaged and involved, they have more motivation to do other things that will keep them well,” Landau says. Those can include physical exercise, paying attention to their diet, and simply getting out of the house more.

You may already have a sense of purpose in life, but if not, retirement, and the flexibility it provides, offers a wealth of possibilities. And it might pay to pick several of them. In Landau’s experience, “people who develop multiple ways of engaging with the world do the best,” she says.

What to consider

Work at something you’re good at and enjoy doing, even part-time.

Mentor a younger person who’s interested in your field.

Volunteer for a cause that’s meaningful to you.

Find a fulfilling hobby. It might be one you were into when you were younger but didn’t have time for in your career years.

Head back to school and master a new subject. Many colleges offer special programs now for “nontraditional” students.

Get into grandparenting, if you’ve got grandkids. Otherwise, consider nephews, nieces, or any other family you might have handy.