Is life purpose linked to mortality?
People without a strong purpose in life lived for less time. This could influence the need for interventions which instill people with meaning, especially in later life.
A strong sense of purpose in life can be someone’s Northern Star – shaping and guiding the decisions they make, the people they socialise with and their choice of job. So it’s no surprise that a growing body of research suggests that a sense of meaning and purpose in life is linked to better health outcomes. How strong is the effect and what does it mean for the later parts of a person’s life?
This research used data from the Health and Retirement Study in the US which collects comprehensive data on the lives of thousands of people, including information about their life purpose and psychological wellbeing.
The researchers looked at people older than 50 who had answered questions about their self-acceptance, their ties to other people, their sense of autonomy, whether they were able to pursue meaningful goals and whether they felt like they had a purpose in life. The study followed these people over time, tracking whether they died, and demographic factors like their income, education and health.
Almost 7000 people were included in the analysis – more than half were women. The average age of a person included in the analysis was 68.
They found that having little sense of purpose in life was linked to early death, even after adjusting for psychological status – whether a person felt depressed, anxious, optimistic or social.
Drilling down into the specific causes of death, a lack of life purpose was especially linked to heart disease and blood conditions, whereas it wasn’t linked to cancer. That seems to make sense, and echoes previous research, which has found people with a strong sense of life purpose are more likely to have healthy habits (a healthy lifestyle influences your risk of heart disease).
The exact mechanism by which a strong life purpose influences life expectancy remains unclear, but the link appears real. The researchers say that this finding could influence thinking around interventions to emphasise or instill life purpose in those who may have lost theirs. Programs based on volunteering, wellbeing therapy and meditation are all being researched for this purpose.
Last Reviewed: 01/04/2020
© Norman Swan Medical Communications.
For reference: Alimujiang, et al (2019). Association Between Life Purpose and Mortality Among US Adults Older Than 50 Years. JAMA Network Open doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.4270.