Having a read a previous paper (See below) on purpose in life being associated with reduced risk of cognitive decline I became slightly curious. Was this effect for real? I started to look at some other papers on the subject and the results took on a remarkable pattern. One such paper is ‘Meaning in Life and Mortality‘ by Neal Krause.
Krause was interested in ‘meaning in life’ and design and undertook an exploratory study. He first of all elaborates on the term meaning by quoting P Berger who writes that meaning occurs when people
‘together engage in constructing a world, which then becomes their common dwelling‘
Throughout the introduction, Krause takes us on a fascinating journey showing how people who have an increased or ‘deeper sense of meaning’ experience various beneficial health associations including improved immune functioning (using natural killer cell cytotoxicity as a proxy marker), decreased ‘detrimental health behaviours’ and resilience to the effects of trauma life events.
Krause was careful to examine the possible confounding effects of religious practice and social networks on any associations between meaning and mortality in this study. He sampled older adults in an American nationwide longitudinal survey who had been interviewed on six occasions. They in turn had been sampled from a list of ‘beneficiaries’ of medica insurance. The 6 waves of interviews are described in detail in the methodology section. There were 1,103 interviews at the baseline, 69.1% response in the second interview, 530 people interviewed in the third interviews. The sampling was different in the fourth interviews. These interviews were undertaken 5-7 years after the baseline interviews and all survivors from the baseline interviews were included in these interviews as well as an additional group using another sample approach. This sampling approach produced a similar group size in three age bandings. There were further interviews which included most of the fourth group of interviewees and then a final interview in 2007.
The questions about meaning were first included in the fourth round of interviews and so the relevant data relates to the longitudinal period of 2002-2007.
The questions relating to Purpose are fairly simple
‘I feel like I am living fully’
‘I feel I have found a really significant meaning in my life’
The other measures are listed in Table 1. Krause elaborates on the measures of meaning in life referring to some of his previous research in this area to validate his outcome measures. When it comes to purpose, he has this to say
‘It has to do with believing that one’s actions have a set place in the larger order of things and that one’s behavior fits appropriately into a larger, more important social whole…a sense of purpose arises from seeing the reasons or intent behind the values and understanding how these codes or standards integrate the individual into the larger currents of social life‘
Using a logistic regression analysis, Krause finds that older adults are significantly less likely to die during the follow-up period if they have a ‘strong sense of meaning’ compared to those that do not. However once their ratings of health are included this relationship disappears. In other words how the person rated their health had a powerful effect on this relationship, one which Krause suspected was playing an important role.
When Krause focused on the different aspects of meaning in life, he found that only one measure was related to mortality – purpose in life (p < 0.05). He again used a logistic regression model to estimate this effect. Again however self-rated health influenced this relationship significantly as did functional disability. Religious practice and social networks whilst having health associations themselves did not significantly impact on the relationship between purpose and mortality. In the discussion, Krause suggests some approaches to improving sense of purpose and perhaps mortality as a secondary effect and it will be interesting to see research in this area. Although the measures of purpose in life were fairly straightforward Krause’s exploratory study has produced very interesting results which are consistent with other findings in the literature and a detailed exploration of purpose in life may have very profound health benefits.
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