Contact: Gail Ironson, M.D., Ph.D.
For Release: Immediately
A patient in the middle range of HIV illness who holds a strong belief that their life has meaning is about twice as likely to be alive up to 17 years later as an adult who starts out just as ill but feels little purpose in life, a leading HIV researcher will report today. The long-term follow-up on 182 adults, including 30% women, will be released at the American Psychosomatic Society meeting in Louisville, KY, by Gail Ironson, M.D., Ph.D., professor of psychology and psychiatry at University of Miami.
Ironson says she chose to study how a sense of meaning in life may affect survival with patients in the mid-range of illness on the hunch that psychological factors might not significantly impact survival for either the barely ill or those with advanced disease. (Level of HIV illness is determined by immune cell count because these cells are needed to fight off potentially fatal infections.) Ironson’s work adds to a small but growing body of evidence that purpose in life can prolong survival.
At the outset, researchers asked the patients about wishes, goals and commitments they still held—basically, their “bucket list” of reasons to go on living. “Other people was a big thing,” says Ironson. “Some of these women had children and wanted to stay alive for them. Some had important missions in life they still wanted to fulfill, unfinished business or experiences they were looking forward to.” Some even found a new mission prompted by their HIV diagnosis. One started going to high schools to speak about safe sex, another founded support groups for heterosexuals at a time when most groups served gay men. In looking at survival, Ironson controlled for gender, race, education and medical differences related to survival.
She continued to track participants for up to 17 years, and the findings are stark: The more meaningful they reported their lives to be, the more likely people were to remain alive; overall, those in the top half for expressing a purpose in life were about twice as likely as those in the bottom half to be still around at the 17-year mark. Meaning in life correlated with better coping with stress, says Ironson, which might lower stress hormone output and strengthen a person’s ability to fight off disease. Also, those who felt great meaning were less depressed, and the absence of depression is strongly related to healthy behaviors, more reliable medication use, less substance abuse and longer survival.
So, there are plausible scientific reasons why wanting to do more in life could help many people with HIV to actually enjoy longer lifespans.
The American Psychosomatic Society (APS) (http://www.psychosomatic.org),
founded in 1942, is an international multidisciplinary academic society that conducts an annual scientific meeting and educational programs. Psychosomatic Medicine is its scientific journal. The membership of over 700 is composed of academic scientists and clinicians in medicine, psychiatry, epidemiology, health psychology and allied health services. The mission of the APS is “to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in health and disease.”