Having a sense of purpose may help you live longer, research shows

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A growing body of evidence suggests that living with purpose may help you live longer.
Recently, researchers wondered whether this effect would apply equally across genders, ethnicities, and races.
This was the focus of a new study led by Dr. Koichiro Shiba, assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health in Massachusetts.
According to the results, having a purpose lowers the risk of all causes of mortality, regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity, but the effects were more pronounced among women.
Living longer and healthier with purpose
Previous research has found strong associations between having a sense of purpose in life and greater longevity.
For the present study, the researchers analyzed a diverse, large, and nationwide sample of older adults in the United States, looking for associations between a sense of purpose and mortality across gender, race, and ethnicity.
The data came from 13,159 adults over the age of 50 who had participated in the longitudinal Health and Retirement Study sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration. After an 8-year follow-up period, 3,253 of the participants, 24.7%, had died.
The analysis revealed that those with the strongest sense of purpose lowered their risk of death by 15.2% compared to people with the least sense of purpose. The results showed no significant differences in this association regardless of the participants’ race or ethnicity.
The findings also showed that purpose was more strongly associated with longevity in women than men, although it provided a significant benefit for both.
The researchers found that women lowered their risk of all-cause mortality by 34%, compared to men, whose risk was reduced by 20%.
Defining purposeful living
Dr. Stephanie Hooker, a research investigator at Health Partners Institute in Bloomington, MN, not involved in the study, explained to Medical News Today:
“A sense of purpose in life is the extent to which someone feels that their life has direction and has ultimate goals. A strong sense of purpose in life will look different across different people. Some people may want to contribute to their community, for others, it would be to be successful in their career, and for others, it may be to take care of their families.”
But for the purposes of the new study, a more technical definition of purpose was required.
According to Dr. Shiba, the researchers used a submodule of Ryff’s Psychological Wellbeing Scale to measure purpose in their study.
“Specifically, this submodule consists of 7 items such as, ‘I have a sense of direction and purpose in life,’ ‘My daily activities often seem trivial and unimportant to me,’ [and] ‘I don’t have a good sense of what it is I’m trying to accomplish in life,’” Dr. Shiba told MNT.
How purpose may lead to better health
It’s well-documented that stress can negatively affect a range of body systems, which means being able to manage stress is a key skill in maintaining overall health.
Dr. Patrick L. Hill, a researcher specializing in healthy aging and an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, not involved in the study, told MNT:
“Our [own] work has shown that individuals higher on sense of purpose report less reactivity to their daily stressors and seem less likely to be stressful or anxious in the face of ambiguous events in their lives. Presumably, these effects occur because individuals are able to focus on the big picture rather than get distressed by everyday issues.”
Dr. Hooker added that prior research has shown that people with greater purpose also engage in more health-promoting behaviors.
“For example, they engage in physical activity, are less likely to smoke, and use more preventive care services (e.g., seeing a doctor for annual screening),” Dr. Hill explained.
Still, it is not yet known whether these traits can help a person live longer, but it is likely some combination of them.
Considering the stronger benefits among females who live with purpose, Dr. Shiba noted:
“Our speculation is that the result might be attributable to gender difference in the use of healthcare services, which is one of the postulated pathways linking purpose and health.”
Another theory could be that other research shows that males are more reluctant to consult doctors and other healthcare professionals regarding their health issues compared to females.
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Encouraging a sense of purpose
Dr. Hill explained that his prior research has shown that caregivers may view their loved ones or aging family members as less purposeful and directed, which may shape how they care for and interact with them.
“A primary point from our research is that caregivers should avoid underestimating how purposeful their [loved ones] are,” Dr. Hill said.
Dr. Hill recommended that caregivers ask their loved ones about their life direction and encourage them to consider how they might maintain a sense of purpose, particularly in the face of potential health concerns.
“Caregivers can help [their loved ones] find something to live for,” Dr. Hooker said. “That may be contributing to the family, household, or community in a meaningful way.”
“However, it doesn’t need to be a big task. For example, as described in Atul Gawande’s book ‘Being Mortal,’ nursing home patients lived longer if they were given a plant to care for,” Dr. Hooker added.