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Association Between Life Purpose and Mortality Among US Adults Older Than 50 Years

Educational Objective
To understand whether an association exists between life purpose and all-cause or cause-specific mortality among people older than 50 years participating in the US Health and Retirement Study.
1 Credit CME
Key Points

Question  Does an association exist between life purpose and all-cause or cause-specific mortality among people older than 50 years participating in the US Health and Retirement Study?

Findings  This cohort study of 6985 adults showed that life purpose was significantly associated with all-cause mortality.

Meaning  Life purpose is a modifiable risk factor and as such the role of interventions to improve life purpose should be evaluated for health outcomes, including mortality.

Abstract

Importance  A growing body of literature suggests that having a strong sense of purpose in life leads to improvements in both physical and mental health and enhances overall quality of life. There are interventions available to influence life purpose; thus, understanding the association of life purpose with mortality is critical.

Objective  To evaluate whether an association exists between life purpose and all-cause or cause-specific mortality among older adults in the United States.

Design, Setting, and Participants  The Health and Retirement Study (HRS) is a national cohort study of US adults older than 50 years. Adults between the ages of 51 to 61 were enrolled in the HRS, and their spouses or partners were enrolled regardless of age. Initially, individuals born between 1931 and 1941 were enrolled starting in 1992, but subsequent cohort enrichment was carried out. The present prospective cohort study sample was drawn from 8419 HRS participants who were older than 50 years and who had filled out a psychological questionnaire during the HRS 2006 interview period. Of these, 1142 nonresponders with incomplete life purpose data, 163 respondents with missing sample weights, 81 participants lost to follow-up, 1 participant with an incorrect survival time, and 47 participants with missing information on covariates were excluded. The final sample for analysis was 6985 individuals. Data analyses were conducted between June 5, 2018, and April 22, 2019.

Exposures  Purpose in life was assessed for the 2006 interview period with a 7-item questionnaire from the modified Ryff and Keyes Scales of Psychological Well-being evaluation using a Likert scale ranging from 1 to 6, with higher scores indicating greater purpose in life; for all-cause and cause-specific mortality analyses, 5 categories of life purpose scores were used (1.00-2.99, 3.00-3.99, 4.00-4.99, 5.00-5.99, and 6.00).

Main Outcomes and Measures  All-cause and cause-specific mortality were assessed between 2006 and 2010. Weighted Cox proportional hazards models were used to evaluate life purpose and mortality.

Results  Of 6985 individuals included in the analysis, 4016 (57.5%) were women, the mean (SD) age of all participants was 68.6 (9.8) years, and the mean (SD) survival time for decedents was 31.21 (15.42) months (range, 1.00-71.00 months). Life purpose was significantly associated with all-cause mortality in the HRS (hazard ratio, 2.43; 95% CI, 1.57-3.75, comparing those in the lowest life purpose category with those in the highest life purpose category). Some significant cause-specific mortality associations with life purpose were also observed (heart, circulatory, and blood conditions: hazard ratio, 2.66; 95% CI, 1.62-4.38).

Conclusions and Relevance  This study’s results indicated that stronger purpose in life was associated with decreased mortality. Purposeful living may have health benefits. Future research should focus on evaluating the association of life purpose interventions with health outcomes, including mortality. In addition, understanding potential biological mechanisms through which life purpose may influence health outcomes would be valuable.

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Article Information

Accepted for Publication: April 3, 2019.

Published: May 24, 2019. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.4270

Open Access: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the CC-BY License. © 2019 Alimujiang A et al. JAMA Network Open.

Corresponding Author: Celeste Leigh Pearce, PhD, MPH, Department of Epidemiology, University of Michigan School of Public Health, 1415 Washington Heights, Ann Arbor, MI 48109 (lpearce@umich.edu).

Author Contributions: Dr Pearce had full access to all of the data in the study and takes responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.

Concept and design: Alimujiang, Fleischer, Mukherjee, Pearce.

Acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data: All authors.

Drafting of the manuscript: Alimujiang, Wiensch, Boss, Mukherjee, Pearce.

Critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content: Alimujiang, Fleischer, Mondul, McLean, Mukherjee, Pearce.

Statistical analysis: Alimujiang, Boss, Mukherjee, Pearce.

Obtained funding: Pearce.

Administrative, technical, or material support: Alimujiang, Wiensch, Mukherjee.

Supervision: Fleischer, Mukherjee, Pearce.

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: Dr Pearce reported receiving grants from Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs during the conduct of the study. No other disclosures were reported.

Funding/Support: The study was supported by grants from the National Cancer Institute (5P30-CA-46592) and the Department of Defense Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (W81XSH-16-2-0010).

Role of the Funder/Sponsor: The funders had no role in the design and conduct of the study; collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of the data; preparation, review, or approval of the manuscript; and decision to submit the manuscript for publication.

Additional Contributions: We thank the participants, field workers, and data managers for their time and cooperation.

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