Purpose in Life and Reduced Stroke in Older Adults

The Health and Retirement Study

A higher rating of purpose in life is associated with a reduced likelihood of stroke.

Understanding psychological factors that may be linked to disease can lead to innovative prevention and treatment efforts. This study examines a positive psychological characteristic—purpose in life—and its relationship to stroke.

Using data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a nationally representative panel study of American adults over the age of 50, this study included 6,739 respondents who were stroke-free at baseline. The study assessed the odds of stroke incidence over a four-year period, including data from 2006, 2008, 2010, and exit interviews. Purpose in life was measured using an adaptation of Ryff and Keyes’ Scales of Psychological Well-Being.

Key Findings:

  • A higher rating of purpose in life was associated with a reduced likelihood of stroke during the four-year follow-up.
  • Each standard deviation increase in purpose in life was associated with a 22 percent reduced risk of stroke over the follow-up period.
  • These findings held after adjusting for several factors including socio-demographic, behavioral, biological, and psychosocial.

Future studies should consider the ways in which fostering purpose may positively affect interventions that address stroke and other serious diseases.

This study is one in a series supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio to explore Positive Health, an emerging concept that seeks to demonstrate that in addition to health risks, people also have health assets, which can be strengthened to produce a healthier life. These health assets could include biological factors, such as high heart rate variability; subjective factors, such as optimism; and functional factors, such as a stable marriage.

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