Seniors who feel their life has purpose may be less likely to die from heart, circulatory, and digestive diseases and more likely to live longer, new data suggest.
In a study that followed nearly 7,000 people over age 50 for more than a decade, researchers determined that people were more likely to die at a younger age if they felt their lives had little purpose, according to the report published in JAMA Network Open.
“We found a strong association between life purpose and mortality in the U.S.,” said the study’s lead author, Leigh Pearce of the University of Michigan School of Public Health. “This has also been found in a number of studies conducted in a number of populations and seems to be quite a robust association.”
What constitutes “life purpose?”
“I think it’s about what people think is most valuable to them,” Pearce said. “Community, achievement, reputation, relationships, spirituality, kindness—these can all feed into any one person’s life purpose. So there is not a specific definition for any one person.”
Pearce and her colleagues explored the topic using data from The Health and Retirement Study, a national cohort study of U.S. adults older than 50. The earliest participants were enrolled in the study in 1992 and were born between 1931 and 1941.
For the new study, the researchers analyzed data from 6,985 individuals who filled out a seven-item survey in 2006. Participants were told to rate each item on the survey on a scale of one to six. Among the seven items were: “I enjoy making plans for the future and working to make them a reality”; “My daily activities often seem trivial to me”; “I don’t have a good sense of what I’m trying to accomplish in life”; and “I live life one day at a time and don’t really think about the future.”
Higher scores on the survey indicated a greater purpose in life. When comparing individuals who scored lowest on the survey to those who scored highest, the researchers found that the low scorers were 2.43 times more likely to have died by the end of the study. Those with the lowest life purpose scores were 2.66 times more likely to die from heart, circulatory, and blood conditions, compared to participants with the highest scores. Those with the lowest life purpose scores were also twice as likely to die from digestive tract conditions, compared to participants with the highest scores.
Other studies have found that low life purpose scores are associated with higher levels of inflammatory markers and stress hormones, Pearce said. “And there is one study that shows that life purpose is associated with telomere length,” she added.
Those life purpose scores can be changed, Pearce said. “The literature shows that meditation or yoga can be used to help build life purpose,” she explained. “And there are studies showing that volunteering can have a positive effect on well-being. So I think taking steps that affect and improve life purpose could be beneficial.”
As the study suggests, volunteering can be a good strategy for those searching for life purpose, said Rick Morycz, an associate professor of psychiatry and social work at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a member of the board of directors at UPMC’s Aging Institute.
The key, Morycz said, “may be to be more altruistic and to engage in compassionate behavior. One thing I have tried in my own clinical work helping people who are struggling is to look at ways to find their own goals and meaning in life. Part of that is suggesting that people try to help others. It doesn’t have to be structured. But it has to be regular, like perhaps every Wednesday volunteering for Meals on Wheels.”
By Linda Carroll