Posts Tagged ‘Patricia Boyle’

Research on Ikigai

February 28, 2017

Research on ikigai, or purpose in life, is usually measured with statements such as, “I have a sense of direction and purpose in life,” and “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.  Respondents then assess these statements using scales that range from one to seven.  Bear in mind that these are just examples, the assessment form includes many more such statements.  The responses to all these statements are combined to form an overall index of purpose.  Although this might appear to be a simple form of evaluation, it delivers reliable and validated results.

Studies using these measures have demonstrated that people reporting a strong purpose in life live longer lives, on average, that those with a weak purpose.  A recent study that followed over seven thousand middle-aged America adults for fourteen years found that even a one-point increase on a seven-point scale of purpose resulted in an over 12% reduced risk of dying.  The person’s age or whether they’ retired did not matter.  What is even more impotent is that general measures of happiness or sadness did not influence the risk of death, not did they affect the impact of purpose in life.

Dr. Strecher spends his days at work studying facts that make us healthy or unhealthy.  Together, tobacco use, a poor diet, inactivity, stress, and other lifestyle factors contribute to about half of disease and early death.  This is not news.  There are many articles written on these issues, yet you rarely read about ikigai, or having a meaningful purpose in life, but current evidence indicates that it contributes at least as much to disease and death as do these other factors.

In a study of over 1,500 adults with heart disease followed for two years, every one-point increase a six-point purpose-in-life scale resulted in a 27% lower risk of suffering a heart attack.  In a study of over 6,000 adults follows for four years, every one-point increase on a six-pint scale resulted in a 22% reduced risk of stroke.

Great pains are taken in this research to avoid mistaking correlation for causation.  Other factors  that might actually be causing changes in the outcomes of interest are statistically controlled.

Patricia Boyle and her colleagues at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center followed over nine hundred seniors for seven years, looking for the incidence of Alzheimer’s.  Over that period, seniors with a low purpose in life were 2.4 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those with a high purpose in life.  In a different study the same research team found a slower progression of the disease among those who had developed Allzheimer’s and had a high purpose in life.

People with ikigai, or a strong purpose in life, on average, do better psychologically and socially than those without.  They sleep better, have better sex, and are less likely to become depressed and are more relaxed.   Diabetics with ikigai are more likely to have their blood glucose under control.  People who have received drug and alcohol rehab are half as likely to relapse six month later if they started treatment with a strong purpose.  There are physiological factors underlying these results.  Ikigai is associated with an increase in natural killer cells that attack viruses and cancerous cells.  Ikigai is also associated with  reduction in inflammatory cell production and an increase in HDL (good cholesterol.)

These outcomes also translate into reductions in health-care costs.  After statistically controlling for initial demographics, health behaviors, and health status, every point improved on a six-point purpose-in-life scale resulted in a 17% reduction in nights spent in the hospital.  Someone on a six-point scale,  with a purpose of five would have an average of 36% fewer hospital nights per year than a person who had a purpose of two.  Dr. Strecher knows of no other lifestyle behavior that produces this effect on health care.

The 2009 Nobel Prize winner in medicine, Elizabeth Blackburn, discovered the role of telomeres. Telomeres are located at the end of our chromosomes and act a bit like the plastic caps that keep shoelaces from fraying.  When our telomeres shorten, our chromosomes are more susceptible to damage and we’re more likely to get sick.

Stress damages chromosomes.  Meditation has been shown to reduce stress, so Blackburn and her colleagues created an experiment that randomly enrolled some subjects in a three-month meditation program, and others to a waiting list for the program.  The research question was whether meditation would reduce stress, which might, in turn, increase an enzyme, telomerase, that a fuels telomeres.

Compared to the control group, the meditators did have more telomerase.  However, they also found that the meditators were developing a stronger purpose in their lives, and it was this purpose in life, and not the meditation, that was associated with the higher levels of telomerase.


Ikigai Cuts the Risk of Alzheimer’s by Half

February 7, 2017

This finding comes from an article in the 28 January 2017 issue of the New Scientist by Teal Burrell titled “A meaning to life:  How a sense of purpose can keep you healthy.”  Ikigai is the Japanese word for having a purpose in life.  Ikigai also helps prevent heart attack(27%) and stroke (22%), enables people to sleep better, have better sex and live longer, and cuts the risk of Alzheimer’s by more than half according to a study by Patricia Boyle and her colleagues at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center.

Burrell quotes Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”  Burrell gives the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl who survived four Nazi concentration camps credit for studying of how purpose influences our health.  We encountered Viktor before in a healthy memory blog post titled “Another Quote Worth Pondering.”  That quote was “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing:  the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance, to choose one’s own way.”

The critical reader might well ask, how do we know about the benefits of having a purpose in life?  A more parsimonious explanation might be that purposeful people may exercise more or eat better.  However, over the past ten years the findings about the health benefits have been remarkably consistent revealing that alcoholics whose sense of purpose increased during treatment were less likely to resume heavy drinking six months later.  People with  higher purpose were less likely to develop sleep disturbances with age, and that women with more purpose rated their sex lives as more enjoyable.  Victor Stecher, a public health researcher at the University of Michigan found that these findings persist “even after statistically controlling for age, race, gender, education, income health status and health behaviors.  Stecher is the author of the book, “Life on Purpose.”

A study of 7000 middle-aged people in the US found that even small increases in sense of purpose were associated with big drops in the chances of dying during a period of 14 years.  An analysis of more than 9000 English people over 50 years old found that after adjusting for things like education, depression, smoking, and exercise—those in the highest quartile of purpose had a 30% lower risk of death over nearly a decade compared with those in the lowest quartile.

Some might argue that this sense of purpose is confounded with wealth.   However, a 2007 Gallup poll of 141,000 people in 132 countries found that  even though people from wealthier countries rate themselves higher on measure of happiness, people from poorer countries tend  to view their lives as more meaningful.  Shierhio Oishi of the University of Virginia suspects this is in part because people in developing countries have more concrete things to focus on.  He says, “Their goals are clearer perhaps:  to survive and believe.  In rich countries, there are so many potential choices that it could be hard to see clearly.”

Another explanation could be in terms of religious faith.  Oishu’s study find that nations with the highest ratings of meaningful  life were also the most religious.  And religious people do tend to report having more purpose.  However, efforts to disentangle the two have revealed differences.  For example, religiosity does not  predict a lower risk of heart attack or stroke.

Steven Cole of the University of California at Los Angeles says , “If people are living longer, there’s got to be some biology underpinning it.”  Cole has spent years studying how negative experiences such as loneliness and stress can increase the expression of genes promoting inflammation, which can cause cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, or cancer.

Cole has examined the influence of well-being.  He has focused on two types of well-being:  hedonic, from pleasure and rewards, and eudaemonic, for having a purpose beyond self-gratification.  Participants were measured by having them note down their well-being over the previous week, how often they felt happy (hedonic), or that their life had a sense of direction (eudaemonic).  Scoring highly on one often meant scoring highly on the other and both correlated with lower levels of depression, but they had opposite effects on gene expression. People with higher measures of hedonic well-being had higher expression of inflammatory genes and lower expression of genes for disease-fighting antibodies.  It was just the opposite for people scoring highest on eudaemonia who had lower expression of inflammatory genes, and higher expression of genes for disease-fighting antibodies.  Cole suspects the eudaemonia, with its focus on purpose, decreases the nervous systems reaction to sudden danger that increases heart rate and breathing and surges of adrenaline.  Over-activation of this stress-response system causes harmful inflammation.  Cole says there be something saying “be less frightened, or less worried, anxious or uncertain.”

An alternative, but not mutually exclusive theory for how purpose could affect biology is by preserving the telomeres, which are the caps on the chromosomes that protect DNA from damage, but that shorten with age and stress.  Research has also indicated that stress reduction through meditation has found that it could defend telomeres.  Close analysis showed the the benefit was down to a change in sense of purpose, not the meditation directly:  the greater a person’s purpose became, the more of the protein telomerase they had to protect their telomeres.

Of course, a key question is how can people boost heir sense of purpose if it is lacking?  The article suggests several different strategies.  Meditation can have an effect. Eudaemonic  well-being is strengthened  by carrying out random acts of kindness.  Cole has found that having a purpose that benefits others may be particularly helpful;.

Stretcher recommends setting a different purpose for each o four domains in life—family, work, community and personal—and acknowledging that you focus will shift among them over time, and the goals themselves can shift too.

Dolores Gallagher-Thompson has found that cognitive behavioral therapy can promote meaningfulness.  She encourages patients to consider their legacy and how they might prove a good example for children and grandchildren.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.