A greater sense of purpose in life lowers the risk of death, new research says

What is your reason for getting up every morning? If you don’t have an answer to this yet, you better start thinking now, as it may be the key to longevity. 

New research found that having a sense of purpose in life can potentially lower your risk of death. Having a sense of direction where everything you do has meaning can be linked to various physical and mental health benefits. A greater sense of purpose in life can provide protective health benefits, particularly decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline related to aging.

How is it possible?

In this area of research, there is an increasing number of studies indicating that a person’s sense of direction and goals in life are correlated with better health, particularly in physical functioning and lower risks of cardiovascular disease or cognitive decline [1]. 

Individuals with motivation and drive to pursue what can make them fulfilled and satisfied are found to have a longer life expectancy. A goal-driven mindset can be associated with good mental health. Specifically, it can lower rates of depression, anxiety and stress. 

Furthermore, the latest study contributes to the growing body of evidence proving the importance of having a sense of purpose in life as it promotes overall health and well-being. The relationship between a sense of purpose in life and improved health is independent of race or ethnicity and the gender of an individual, as the new study suggests. The study also reveals that men may potentially experience fewer health benefits gained from having a sense of purpose compared with women in general. 

A higher sense of purpose in life and mortality study

The new interesting insight has emerged from a study led by a brilliant researcher at the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH). The team of researchers have concluded that individuals who possess a greater sense of purpose in life may be at a lower risk of death from any cause, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender [2].

The new study, published in the journal Preventive Medicine, utilised data gathered from the Health and Retirement Study, which is a nationally representative research that used more than 13,000 Americans who are 50 years old and above as participants. 

With questionnaires as the instrument, participants were asked between the years 2006 and 2008 to identify and state their sense of purpose in life through the Ryff Psychological Well-being Scales – a widely-used tool that measures different aspects of well-being and happiness. The sense of purpose question in the material was also categorised into “low” to “high” levels. Consequently, deaths were tracked over an eight-year follow-up period.

Moreover, the study emphasised then that the link between better health and a sense of purpose is slightly stronger among women than it is among men. Meanwhile, there was no significant difference by race or ethnicity. 

Dr Koichiro Shiba, the study’s Lead Author and Assistant Professor of Epidemiology from BUSPH, stated that having a greater purpose in life has been found to improve many health outcomes on average. He further added that in his other related study, they found that the effect of a sense of purpose on lowering all-cause mortality may be different by the factor of socioeconomic status. 

And with the recent study they conducted, Dr Shiba and other involved researchers who are colleagues from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard Chan), had extended the prior evidence and concluded that the beneficial effect of purpose persisted regardless of gender and race or ethnicity.

At the end of the intensive research, the findings revealed that people who have the highest sense of purpose indicated the lowest risk of death with a 15.2 percent mortality risk, while people who have the lowest sense of purpose had a 36.5 percent mortality risk. The results of the study have relevant claims that can pave the way for future studies to dig deeper into this research area [3].

The researchers also looked into the gathered data on additional factors that can influence health, particularly socioeconomic status, as well as demographic characteristics, baseline physical health and depression. They discovered that an increase in the mentioned factors was also related to an increase in a higher sense of purpose.

Dr Shiba believes that the stronger observed purpose-mortality association in women may be because of the gender disparity in the use of healthcare services. To him, this is one of the postulated pathways associated with purpose and health. Much research-based evidence shows that men tend to underuse essential healthcare services due to social norms. However, a future study investigating the mechanisms underlying gender difference should be conducted to prove the statement, he also added. 

Battling cardiovascular disease 

As reported by the World Health Organisation (WHO), around 16 percent of the total deaths around the world are caused by heart problems. Cardiovascular disease has been one of the biggest causes of death worldwide since the year 2000. By 2019, the number has increased even more, skyrocketing to more than two million to 8.9 million deaths worldwide. 

The absolute causes of cardiovascular disease are similar in all places, such as having an unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity and excessive use of alcoholic beverages and tobacco – all of which are behavioural related and can be due to mental health issues. 

With a continuous unhealthy lifestyle, the effects of the mentioned behavioural risk factors may occur in individuals by some health indications, including high blood pressure, raised blood glucose and blood lipids and overweight and obesity.

The determined intermediate risk factors can be consulted in primary care facilities and identify an increased risk of heart attack, heart failure, stroke and other heart complications.

Not just that, there are also numerous underlying determinants of heart problems. These can include the major forces driving social, economic and cultural change, such as globalisation, urbanisation and population aging. Other determinants of cardiovascular disease may include poverty, chronic stress, hereditary factors and potentially climate change. 

The answer is simple in battling cardiovascular disease: better behavioural choices. The ways to reduce your risk of having cardiovascular disease include stopping tobacco use, decreasing salt in your diet, consuming more fruits and vegetables and avoiding the harmful use of alcohol. 

Many health experts couldn’t emphasise this enough – do physical activity. Studies show that every physical movement counts in supporting your heart health. A simple 10-minute walk is way better than sitting and laying in bed, most especially if you do a brisk walk. Physical activities do not have to be an intense workout, you can try gardening or sports where you have an aim for each time you do them. It is recommended as well to do at least 45 minutes per day of moderate-intensity exercise. If you can do more than this, the ideal is 600 minutes per week to receive optimal benefits [4].

Also, knowing your health risks can give you an idea of which is good and which is not for you. You must have consistent annual check-ups with your doctor, don’t self-medicate and always follow your doctor’s prescriptions. 

Blood pressure monitoring can also be another way to prevent cardiovascular disease. You must regularly check your blood sugar and blood pressure. You can do it at home, which is easy and convenient. Moreover, drug treatment for hypertension, diabetes and high blood lipids is required to lower your cardiovascular risk. Such treatments can prevent fatal heart attacks and strokes among people with existing heart-related conditions [5]. 

Moving forward with the findings

With the additional scientific perspectives provided, the recent study can absolutely spread awareness for future policies and other efforts to better improve health and wellness. 

Dr Shiba further said that the evidence on effect heterogeneity provides us with whether population-level purposeful actions can promote people’s health not only on an average level but also in an equitable manner. Policymakers must be informed of other sources of heterogeneity like SES and gender, even if evidence reveals that the purpose interventions would not lead to widening racial disparities in mortality, 

Having a higher sense of purpose in life can be seen by many as a mere psychological factor; however, the researchers recommend widening our understanding as its impacts on health cannot be explained solely by processes in our minds and biology. We should go beyond psychology and look into how the ‘sense of purpose’ interacts with our social world and affects our health. 

The bottom line 

Who would have thought that having a purpose in life won’t only give you motivation and drive to wake up every morning, in a general sense, but also a way for you to lessen your risk of dying?

This study is relevant as it provides another factor to look at for us to have a longer life with a healthy and well-functioning body. Identifying your purpose in life is officially a scientifically-proven way to stay physically and mentally healthy.

[1] https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/health-happiness/november-2019-sense-of-purpose-in-life-and-cardiovascular-disease/ 
[2] https://neurosciencenews.com/mortality-sense-purpose-21864/ 
[3] https://scitechdaily.com/new-research-links-a-greater-sense-of-purpose-to-a-lower-risk-of-death/ 
[4]  https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/moderate-or-vigorous-exercise-heart-health-uk-study#Moderate-vs.-vigorous-activity
[5] https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/cardiovascular-diseases-(cvds) 

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