Sense of purpose 'doubles' chances of enjoying a long retirement

Henry Bodkin
Family obligations, or volunteering, help pensioners' sense of wellbeing - Telegraph

Pensioners who feel they have a purpose in life have double the chance of enjoying a long retirement, new research has found.

A landmark study of more than 6,000 older people found a “significant” link between having goals to work towards and long-term survival.

People with responsibilities such as looking after grandchildren or volunteering were less likely to die early, the data showed.

However, even those without these stimulations can train themselves to live more purposeful lives, reducing the risk of illness and early death, the researchers said.

The scientists at the University of Michigan found death from heart and circulatory conditions were a particular driver of the association between having low sense of purpose and mortality.

They said this may be partly explained by the fact that pensioners who do not feel motivated, particularly if they live alone, tend to live less healthily.

But they also pointed to previous research which suggests a stronger sense of wellbeing decreases the expression of proinflammatory genes, which are known to contribute to illness.

Professor Celeste Leigh Pearce said: “ "A growing body of literature suggests having a sense of purpose in life is associated with both physical and mental health and over all quality of life."

Purposeful living has been defined in various ways.

In general, purpose in life can be defined as a self-organising life aim that stimulates goals, promotes healthy behaviours, and gives meaning to life."

The national study began in 1992 by recruiting US adults born between 1931 and 1941.

In 2006 half the participants were asked to complete a psychological well-being survey that measured their purpose in life based on seven questions.

It scored each from one to six depending on how they answered - from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree".

Deaths from all causes and specific diseases were then assessed up until 2010 with statistical analysis used to evaluate their link to life purpose.

Prof Pearce said: "There was a significant association between life purpose and mortality attributed to heart, circulatory, and blood conditions when the lowest and highest life purpose categories were compared."

This remained the case for digestive tract system conditions.

But for cancer and respiratory tract diseases, no such link was identified.

She added: "The association between mortality and life purpose was evident only for heart and blood diseases and digestive tract system diseases.

"There is little published literature on cause-specific mortality and life purpose."

One previous study of Japanese men also found a significant association between life purpose and the risk of death from cardiovascular disease - and not with cancer.

A number of interventions that have been developed with the goal of improving life purpose, including mindfulness, a fashionable form of meditation that helps us live in the moment.

It is practiced by a host of celebrities including Emma Watson, Davina McCall, Angelina Jolie and Oprah Winfrey.

This year a British company, Calm, became the first mindfulness country in the world to be valued at $1 billion.

The new study is published in JAMA Network Open.