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Volunteering lowers risk of death, improves well-being in older adults

A new study published by Elsevier has confirmed that volunteer work improves the mental and physical health of older adults. The researchers found that adults over 50 who volunteer for about two hours a week are less inclined to developing physical limitations and have a lower risk of death.

A growing collection of research has linked volunteering to many psychological benefits as well, including increased self-confidence and a stronger sense of purpose.

The current study shows that older adults involved in charity work are more physically active and have an improved sense of well-being compared to those who do not volunteer.

However, to develop public health interventions focused on volunteering, more research is needed to confirm the consistency of specific positive outcomes.

In the new study, experts have made progress in clarifying the health benefits of volunteer work by evaluating 34 physical and mental health outcomes. This provided the researchers with an opportunity to compare the likelihood and extent of various effects.

The team also identified some outcomes that were not influenced by volunteering. For example, the study did not link charity work to improvements in chronic conditions such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, obesity, or chronic pain.

Study lead author Dr. Eric S. Kim is an expert in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

“Humans are social creatures by nature. Perhaps this is why our minds and bodies are rewarded when we give to others,” said Dr. Kim.

“Our results show that volunteerism among older adults doesn’t just strengthen communities, but enriches our own lives by strengthening our bonds to others, helping us feel a sense of purpose and well-being, and protecting us from feelings of loneliness, depression, and hopelessness.” 

“Regular altruistic activity reduces our risk of death even though our study didn’t show any direct impact on a wide array of chronic conditions.”

The investigation was focused on data from nearly 13,000 participants randomly selected from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS). The individuals were tracked for over four years.

According to the researchers, further research is needed to understand the protective health benefits of volunteering. The experts recommend the adoption of policies that encourage more volunteerism. 

The older adult population possesses a vast array of skills and experiences that can be used to improve society. Through volunteering, older adults also promote a trend of healthier aging. 

The study authors noted that the research was conducted prior to the global COVID-19 pandemic, which makes social activity risky and unadvisable for the foreseeable future.

However, according to Dr. Kim, this may be a particular moment in history when society needs your service the most. 

“If you are able to do so while abiding by health guidelines, you not only can help to heal and repair the world, but you can help yourself as well.” 

“When the COVID-19 crisis finally subsides, we have a chance to create policies and civic structures that enable more giving in society. Some cities were already pioneering this idea before the pandemic and quarantine, and I hope we have the willingness and resolve to do so in a post-COVID-19 society as well.”

The study is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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