Published in the American Heart Association’s Stroke journal, the Rush Memory and Aging Project study looked at the impact of mental health—specifically, having a sense of purpose in life—on risk of stroke. Stroke is a leading killer in the United States, accounting for 1 in 20 deaths each year. Two-thirds of strokes occur in people over 65 years old, and many times, smaller strokes can go undetected in elderly patients.
To better understand stroke risk in older patients, researchers enrolled 453 adults into the Memory and Aging Project conducted at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, IL. Participants were 84 years old, on average, and at the start of the study completed health questionnaires providing information about their sense of meaning and direction in life.
On a scale of zero to five, with zero correlating to no sense of purpose and five correlating to great meaning in life, participants had an average score of 3.5. After following participants for roughly six years, researchers found that a greater sense of purpose in life was associated with lower risk of small strokes called macroscopic infarcts.
These study findings support a wealth of evidence suggesting that mental health plays an important role in cardiovascular health. Many studies have shown that depression and poor mental health can increase risk of heart problems and may worsen outcomes in patients with existing medical conditions. Losing one’s sense of purpose in life could be a sign of depression or vice versa, and addressing these issues is key to good health.