Brain and Body

Having a “Purpose in Life” Linked to Living Longer, Research Finds

December 8, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

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In particular, those who felt a “purpose” were at a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Only recently has having a purpose in life caught the attention of researchers, but a new study finds that people who have a sense of their life’s purpose are actually at a lower risk of dying, particularly of cardiovascular diseases.

"Possessing a high sense of purpose in life is associated with a reduced risk for mortality and cardiovascular events," according to the study by Drs. Randy Cohen, Alan Rozanski, and colleagues at Mt. Sinai St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York. While the mechanisms behind this association remain a bit of a mystery, the researchers hope that new approaches to help people strengthen a sense of their purpose might lead to better health outcomes.

The researchers used a technique called meta-analysis to pool data from previous studies and evaluate the relationship between a purpose in life and the risk of death or cardiovascular disease. They looked at data from over 136,000 study participants, mainly from the United States and Japan — the US studies evaluated a sense of purpose and meaning in life while the Japanese studies looked at the concept of “ikigai,” translated as “a life worth living.”

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On average, the study participants were 67-years-old, and the researchers followed up on their lives and medical conditions for an average of seven years. During this time, over 14,500 participants died, with over 4,000 suffering from cardiovascular events like a heart attack or a stroke.

The participants with a lower risk of death were those with a higher sense of purpose in life. In fact, even after adjusting for other factors, the researchers found that the mortality rate was about one-fifth lower for the participants who had reported a strong sense of purpose, or ikigai. This high sense of purpose was also related to a reduced likelihood of cardiovascular events.

"Together, these findings indicate a robust relationship between purpose in life and mortality and/or adverse cardiovascular outcomes,” the researchers wrote. While there has been ample research on the link between negative psychosocial factors and health problems like heart attacks, strokes, and overall mortality. "Conversely, more recent study provides evidence that positive psychosocial factors can promote healthy physiological functioning and greater longevity," the authors suggest.

Further research is needed to better explain the effect, but the researchers say it could be explained by a sense of purpose promoting a healthier lifestyle as well as the physiological benefits of healthier responses to stress.

“Of note, having a strong sense of life purpose has long been postulated to be an important dimension of life, providing people with a sense of vitality motivation and resilience," Dr. Rozanski said. "The current findings are important because they may open up new potential interventions for helping people to promote their health and sense of well-being."

While many people may write off embodying a “true sense of life’s purpose” as some hippy nonsense, the science behind it shows that the benefits could potentially add years onto an individual’s lifespan.

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