Group of senior adults exercising in swimming pool, smiling
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Having a sense of purpose in life can offer “potent protection” against loneliness, an issue that can pose multiple health risks to older adults, according to the authors of a new study.

The study, based on surveys of more than 2,300 Swiss adults, discovered that feelings of loneliness were fewer among respondents who reported having a purposeful life.

“A sense of purpose,” said co-author Patrick Hill, MA, PhD, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, “is this general perception that you have something leading and directing you from one day to the next. It can be something like gardening, supporting your family, or achieving success at work.”

Hill noted living a purposeful life can stave off loneliness because many activities that provide purpose involve interacting with others. According to the study, people who said they received or provided social support were “especially likely” to report feelings of purpose. 

The health risks of loneliness to older adults are substantial, according to Hill.

“Loneliness is known to be one of the biggest psychological predictors for health problems, cognitive decline and early mortality,” he said. “Studies show that it can be as harmful for health as smoking or having a poor diet.”

The study found that adults in their 70s and beyond were more likely to report feelings of loneliness, possibly because of societal norms that dictate how they are expected to behave, Hill said.

“We’re trying to dispel the myth from previous generations that this is simply a time for retiring and resting,” he said. “There are no downsides to finding something meaningful later in life.”

Hill also stressed that purpose can be derived from anything — no matter big or small.

“It’s OK if someone else thinks that your purpose is trivial, as long as it’s meaningful to you,” he said. 

Findings appear in the journal Psychology and Aging.

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This article originally appeared on McKnight's Senior Living