older woman in swimming pool
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People with higher levels of purpose may have a lower risk of death from any cause, according to a study recently published in the journal Preventive Medicine.

The researchers, from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Boston University School of Public Health, found that the association applied across races/ethnicities and genders, although they said that women may benefit slightly more than men.

“Having a purpose in life has been known to improve many health outcomes, on average,” said study lead author Koichiro Shiba, PhD, an 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.”

The researchers noted that an increasing amount of research indicates that a person’s sense of purpose — that is, the extent to which someone perceives a sense of direction and goals in his or her life — may be linked to health-protective benefits such as better physical functioning and lower risks of cardiovascular disease or cognitive decline. As iN2L’s then-CEO, Lisa Taylor, pointed out in a column for McKnight’s Senior Living in August, studies such as the Rush Memory & Aging Project have demonstrated that having purpose in life is one of the most significant predictors of health and wellness for older adults.

For the current study, Shiba and colleagues used data from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative study of US adults aged 50 or more years. They assessed the 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 tool that measures various aspects of well-being and happiness. They also examined mortality risk over an eight-year period beginning between 2006 and 2008.

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

Shiba speculated that the stronger association between purpose and mortality among women may be due to gender differences in the use of healthcare services. “Evidence suggests men tend to underuse necessary healthcare services, due to social norm,” he said, recommending future research into the area.

Even now, however, the findings can help inform future policies and other efforts to improve health and well-being, according to the investigators.

“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,” Shiba said. “We need to consider how the psychological factor interacts with our social world and ultimately impacts our health.”

Read an abstract of the study here.