People with stronger sense of purpose in life live longer, study suggests

BOSTON — Finding a reason to get out of bed every morning can help us avoid the grave, according to fascinating new work from Boston University. Researchers report that people with higher levels of purpose in life may have a lower risk of death from any cause.

Importantly, the positive relationship between purpose and longevity held up regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender. That being said, women appear to benefit somewhat more from finding their purpose than men.

Defined as, the extent to which someone perceives a sense of direction and goals in their life, “purpose” has been linked to numerous health benefits in recent years. That includes improved physical functioning, lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and a lower risk of cognitive decline.

“Having a purpose in life has been known to improve many health outcomes on average,” says study lead author Dr. Koichiro Shiba, assistant professor of epidemiology at BUSPH, in a media release. “In another study I led, we found that the effect of purpose on lowering all-cause mortality may differ by socioeconomic status. In this study, we extended the prior evidence and found that the beneficial effect of purpose persisted regardless of gender and race/ethnicity.”

Dr. Shiba and colleagues at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health used data from a nationally representative study of U.S. adults ages 50 and older to conduct this research. Study authors analyzed self-reported sense of purpose among over 13,000 participants. This analysis was based on the “purpose in life” segment of the Ryff Psychological Well-being Scales, a widely used tool that measures different aspects of well-being and happiness. Meanwhile, mortality risk was also assessed spanning an eight-year period beginning between 2006-2008.

Overall, people with the highest sense of purpose displayed the lowest risk of death (15.2%) in comparison to others with the lowest observed sense of purpose (36.5%). Researchers were also sure to collect relevant data pertaining to additional factors known to influence health like socioeconomic status, other demographic characteristics, baseline physical health, and depression. They discovered that an increase in these factors was also associated with increases in a higher sense of purpose.

Doctors could prescribe ‘purpose interventions’ for patients

Dr. Shiba theorizes that the observed stronger purpose-mortality association among females specifically may be due to gender differences in the use of healthcare services. “One of the postulated pathways linking purpose and health,” he says. “Evidence suggests men tend to underuse necessary healthcare services, due to social norm. However, future study investigating the mechanisms underlying the gender difference is warranted.”

Moving forward, researchers hope these findings can help form future policies and plans to improve health and well-being.

“This evidence on effect heterogeneity tells us whether population-level purpose interventions can promote people’s health not only on average, but also in an equitable manner,” Dr. Shiba concludes. “Although evidence suggests purpose interventions would not lead to widening racial disparities in mortality, policymakers should also be aware of other sources of heterogeneity, such as SES and gender. Even though people may view purpose as a ‘psychological’ factor, its impacts on health cannot be explained solely by processes that operate in our mind and biology. We need to consider how the psychological factor interacts with our social world and ultimately impacts our health.”

The study is published in Preventive Medicine.

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