Higher Sense of Purpose in Life May Be Linked to Lower Mortality Risk

Summary: A sense of purpose may have health-protective benefits including a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline associated with aging.

Source: Boston University

Growing research indicates that one’s purpose—i.e., the extent to which someone perceives a sense of direction and goals in their life—may be linked to health-protective benefits such as better physical functioning and lower risks of cardiovascular disease or cognitive decline.

Now, a new study led by a Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) researcher found that people with higher levels of purpose may have a lower risk of death from any cause, and that this association is applicable across race/ethnicity and gender.

Published in the journal Preventive Medicine, the study results did suggest that this association is slightly stronger among women than it is among men, but there was no significant difference by race/ethnicity.

“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 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.”

For the study, Dr. Shiba and colleagues at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard Chan) utilized data from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative study of US adults ages 50 and older.

The team assessed self-reported sense of purpose among more than 13,000 people, based on the “purpose in life” of the Ryff Psychological Well-being Scales, a widely used tool that measures different aspects of well-being and happiness. The researchers also examined mortality risk over an eight-year period beginning between 2006-2008.

The results showed that people with the highest sense of purpose indicated the lowest risk of death (15.2 percent mortality risk), compared to people with the lowest sense of purpose (36.5 percent mortality risk).

The team also gathered data on additional factors that can influence health, such socioeconomic status, other demographic characteristics, baseline physical health, and depression, and found that an increase in these factors was also associated with increases in a higher sense of purpose.

This shows an older man painting
Published in the journal Preventive Medicine, the study results did suggest that this association is slightly stronger among women than it is among men, but there was no significant difference by race/ethnicity. Image is in the public domain

Dr. Shiba speculates that the stronger observed purpose-mortality association in women may be attributable to gender difference 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.”

These findings can help inform future policies and other efforts 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 says.

“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.”

About this psychology and health research news

Author: Press Office
Source: Boston University
Contact: Press Office – Boston University
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
Purpose in life and 8-year mortality by gender and race/ethnicity among older adults in the U.S” by Koichiro Shiba et al. Preventive Medicine


Purpose in life and 8-year mortality by gender and race/ethnicity among older adults in the U.S

We examined the associations between a sense of purpose and all-cause mortality by gender and race/ethnicity groups. Data were from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative cohort study of U.S. adults aged >50 (n = 13,159). Sense of purpose was self-reported at baseline (2006/2008), and risk of all-cause mortality was assessed over an 8-year follow-up period.

We also formally tested for potential effect modification by gender and race/ethnicity. We observed the associations between higher purpose and lower all-cause mortality risk across all gender and race/ethnicity groups.

There was modest evidence that the highest level of purpose (versus lowest quartile) was associated with even lower risk of all-cause mortality among women (risk ratio = 0.66, 95% confidence interval: 0.56, 0.77) compared to men (risk ratio = 0.80, 95% confidence interval: 0.69, 0.93; p-value for multiplicative effect modification =0.07). However, we observed no evidence of effect modification by race/ethnicity.

Having a higher sense of purpose appears protective against all-cause mortality regardless of gender and race/ethnicity. 

Purpose, a potentially modifiable factor, might be a health asset across diverse populations.

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