Importance: Higher purpose in life is hypothesized to reduce the likelihood of developing weak grip strength and slow walking speed because purpose has been linked with a range of positive health behaviors and biological processes that are potentially protective against declining physical function. However, the association between purpose in life and objective physical function has not been examined.
Objective: To assess whether higher purpose in life among adequately functioning older adults is associated with lower risk of developing weak grip strength and slow walking speed over time.
Design, setting, and participants: Data for a longitudinal cohort study were collected in 2006 and again in 2010 from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative study of US adults older than 50 years. Data analysis was conducted from November 23, 2016, to June 2, 2017.
Main outcomes and measures: The risk of developing weak grip strength (assessed as a binary yes or no outcome) or slow walking speed (yes or no) during the 4-year follow-up period. Grip strength was assessed using Smedley spring-type hand dynamometers, and walking speed was assessed by asking respondents to walk 2.5 m at their normal walking pace.
Results: In this study, 4486 adults had grip scores at baseline indicating adequate function (2665 women and 1821 men; mean [SD] age, 63.0 [8.2] years) and 1461 adults had walking scores at baseline indicating adequate function (801 women and 660 men; mean [SD] age, 70.8 [6.5] years). After controlling for sociodemographic factors, each 1-SD increase in purpose was associated with a 13% decreased risk (95% CI, 1%-23%) of developing weak grip strength and a 14% decreased risk (95% CI, 8%-20%) of developing slow walking speed. Associations with walking speed were maintained in all covariate models (fully adjusted model: risk ratio, 0.89; 95% CI, 0.83-0.95), but associations with grip strength did not reach conventional levels of statistical significance after additionally adjusting for relevant baseline health factors, depressive symptoms, and health behaviors (fully adjusted model: risk ratio, 0.91; 95% CI, 0.80-1.04).
Conclusions and relevance: Purpose in life was prospectively associated with a decreased risk of developing weak grip strength and slow walking speed, although the findings were more robust for walking speed than for grip strength. These findings suggest that a sense of purpose in life, a modifiable factor, may play an important role in maintaining physical function among older adults.