Will-to-Live Tied to Longer Survival: How Caregivers Can Help


Published: 11/29/2012

by Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.


Eat your fruits and vegetables. Exercise regularly. Don’t drink too much, and do not ever smoke.


These are all sound pieces of advice when it comes to maximizing our longevity, and researchers have focused a great deal of time and resources on trying to pinpoint the factors that help us live longer. They’ve even looked at psychological factors such as optimism and history of mental health issues. But one thing they haven’t really explored is the potentially powerful will-to-live – at least until now.


A group of researchers in Finland tackled this part-psychological, part-philosophical mindset by interviewing a group of 283 home-dwelling older adults between the ages of 75 and 90. The elders were asked in the year 2000 how many years they would still wish to live. Information was collected regarding their health status (type and number of conditions) as well as age and gender.


Based on their responses, the elders were classified into three groups: those who wished to live less than 5 years, those who wished to live 5 – 10 years, and those who wished to live more than 10 years. The researchers then followed up in 2010 by checking mortality data to see which elders had died and in what years. This allowed the researchers to use statistics to see how will-to-live predicted survival.


Mortality was highest among those who only wanted to live 5 years or less. The researchers realized that this may be due to increased age or illness among those with a decreased will-to-live, so they ran additional statistics that took those factors into account. Interestingly, they found that will-to-live was a strong predictor of survival, regardless of the person’s gender, age, or health status.


Granted, this is only one study. Additional research is necessary to further explore the relationship between will-to-live and length of survival. But the results point to the notion that a strong will-to-live really could make a difference in how your loved one faces health problems.


As a caregiver, are there ways that you can help strengthen the will-to-live in your family member? We need more research on this too, but here are some suggestions that can encourage and nourish your loved one’s well-being:


  • Listen. Allow your loved one to talk about his or her illness and the feelings surrounding it. Oftentimes, simply being able to express difficult feelings in a safe place can lift some of the burden felt from chronic health problems. Knowing that someone cares can increase hope.
  • Be an advocate. Be an active participant in your family member’s health care. Find out what you can do to ensure the treatment plan is followed. If you don’t understand a decision, ask the physician for clarification. Explore health care options so that your loved one is getting the best treatment possible. Family members are more likely to take an interest in their own health and well-being when they see you doing the same.
  • Make joyful plans. Always have something on the calendar to look forward to – a visit with grandchildren, a trip (if travel is still feasible), or a date for ice cream at your favorite restaurant. Show your excitement for the joyful things ahead. This keeps a positive focus on the future, which makes the present more enjoyable, too.




Karppinen, H., Laakkonen, M.-L., Strandberg, T. E., Tilvis, R. S., & Pitkälä, K. H. (2012). Will-to-live and survival in a 10-year follow-up among older people. Age and Ageing, 41(6), 789-794.