05/29/2015 09:34 EDT | Updated 05/29/2016 05:59 EDT

A Sense of Purpose Can Make You Live Longer

Mabel is one of the elderly participants in an ongoing study at Rush University in Chicago. When she decided to set a goal at 85 years old to write one letter a week, she no longer felt cocooned at home because of her arthritis. Researchers, including psychologist Dr. Patricia Boyle, have discovered that having a purpose in life can actually improve our health.

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By: Craig and Marc Kielburger

Mabel sat in her Chicago apartment, waiting to die.

Once an active social butterfly, the 85-year-old found herself increasingly cocooned at home because of age-related illnesses like arthritis. A downward spiral ensued: the less Mabel went out, the more she lost touch with friends, the more aimless and depressed she felt, the less healthy she became, and the less she was able to get out of the house.

Then Mabel (not her real name) decided to set herself a goal: write one letter a week to an old acquaintance -- friends or former co-workers. The responses came pouring back, reigniting past friendships and making new ones with their children and grandchildren. In building this new social network, and sharing her stories from the past with a new generation, Mabel found purpose again.

Today Mabel is happy, healthier and her ability to get around is even improving.

Mabel is one of the elderly participants in an ongoing study at Rush University in Chicago. Researchers, including psychologist Dr. Patricia Boyle, have discovered that having a purpose in life can actually improve our health.

It's a topic that fascinates us because so much of our work is devoted to helping Canadian youth, and people in developing countries, find purpose in their lives with the goal of building a better world.

Dr. Boyle told us the Rush study was inspired by Viktor Frankl, a Jewish neurologist who survived the Nazi concentration camps. Frankl observed that, among his fellow prisoners, the idealists who had a purpose in life, or truly believed their life still had meaning, were healthier and better able to survive the deprivation and diseases of the camps.

But in the decades since, no one had ever put Frankl's hypothesis to the scientific test. "We wanted to see if it was really true that having a purpose makes you healthier," Boyle says.

In 2007, the research team assembled a study group of thousands of individuals with an average age around 85. Each participant answered a questionnaire that asked them to rate, on a scale of one to 10, how much they agreed with statements like, "There is still a lot I want to accomplish in my life." The researchers then ranked each person on the degree of purpose in their life.

We were pleased to hear Boyle's observation that the elderly participants in the study who had a strong sense of purpose were more often driven by social goals--volunteering, or passing on their life experience like Mabel--than self-centered goals like accumulating wealth.

The researchers also found the participants who had more purpose-driven lives lived longer, had lower rates of disability and were less likely to experience neuro degenerative issues like Alzheimer's disease.

Thrilled by this, Boyle says she and her colleagues wondered: "Why is this? Is having goals and a purpose doing something in the brain?"

The research team looked at hundreds of autopsies on study participants and were excited to discover that the brains of those with higher purpose were half as likely to have stroke-related brain damage.

Boyle was quick to point out that they took into account other lifestyle factors--physical activity, eating habits, smoking--that also affect strokes, and purpose still emerged as a key influencer on brain health.

"What we've seen is very encouraging. The evidence is there that increasing your sense of purpose can have a benefit, even late in life," Boyle says.

The Rush research complements other recent studies. A 2013 study of 1,000 adults, ages 51 to 91, at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that volunteering 200 hours a year measurably lowers stress levels and blood pressure. In February, a paper published in the Journal of Economic Psychology showed that donating to a charity markedly improves your physical and emotional well-being.

Why not take a little time, sit down and think about your purpose. What's your passion, and what goals do you want to achieve with that passion? You'll be doing yourself--and the world--a big favour.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.