Volunteering Can Improve Health in Older Adults, Study Finds

Volunteering Can Improve Health in Older Adults, Study Finds

A new study suggests that volunteering leads to better health in part because it gives people who volunteer a sense of purpose in life and may lead to better decisions about the use of preventive health care, the Atlantic reports.

Published in the January issue of the journal Social Science and Medicine, the study found that Americans over the age of 50 who volunteered in their communities were more likely to get flu shots, mammograms, Pap smears, cholesterol tests, and prostate exams over a two-year period than those who didn't volunteer. The study also found that volunteering was associated with 38 percent fewer nights spent in the hospital. While previous research has demonstrated links between volunteering, better health, and lower mortality risk — including a 2013 study in which volunteering reduced mortality risk by 24 percent — the study was the first to examine associations between volunteering and health care use.

"What this shows is that volunteers make decisions about their health that are different from non-volunteers," said Sara Konrath, director of the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and co-author of the study. "One way to think about this is that when we care for ourselves, in a fundamental way, it allows us to care for others."

Eric Kim, a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health research fellow and lead author of the study, told the Atlantic that the study also found that purpose in life accounted for "some of the association" between volunteering and health, along with social connections, health behaviors, and personality.

While the findings seem to suggest that a prescribed "course" of volunteering could have larger societal benefits and improve the health of those who volunteer, Konrath, in an observational study, found that the mortality risk for people who volunteered for "self-oriented" motives like "I need to get away from my problems" was similar to that of non-volunteers. "Only the people who were doing it for more outward reasons — compassion for others — had reduced rates of mortality," said Kim.

Still, if volunteering for purely selfish reasons nullifies the health benefits of the activity, doctors might want to recommend that patients volunteer for causes they are passionate about, said Konrath. "I think doctors should tell people about the health benefits of social activities, including volunteering," she said. "I'm willing to make that suggestion, because at this point I think it would be irresponsible to wait another decade to figure out exactly what happens to your heart when you're volunteering."

James Hamblin. "The Physiological Power of Altruism." The Atlantic 12/30/2015.