Studies show seniors who volunteer have better health

Studies show seniors who volunteer have better health

While most people are aware that volunteering provides emotional rewards, few realize the positive impact it has on their physical health.

A recent study in Social Science and Medicine discovered that people who volunteer are more likely to

use preventive health care than those who don’t. Volunteers are 47 percent more likely to have a cholesterol screening and 30 percent more likely to get a flu shot.

Helping others boosts health

The Baltimore Experience Corps Study, launched in 1995 and now operating in 21 U.S. cities as AARP Experience Corps, is a program that pairs older adults with elementary schools to help students improve academic, social and behavioral well-being. When compared to a control group, Experience Corps volunteers walk more steps, are less depressed, find everyday tasks easier to accomplish and have better cognitive skills.

The results of a study at Carnegie Mellon University, published in Psychology and Aging, showed that volunteers age 50+ are less likely to develop high blood pressure than those who don’t volunteer. While the study’s authors could not conclusively prove a direct relationship between low blood pressure and volunteering, it did allow them to make educated assumptions. For instance, volunteer work may provide physical activity that a person does not have in their daily life.

Benefits reported by seniors

In addition to the measurable physical improvements volunteerism provides, a UnitedHealth Group study found that seniors who volunteer self-reported a number of positives results:

  • 83% believe they have very good/good control over their health (including chronic conditions), compared to 75% of seniors who don’t volunteer.
  • 92% rate their emotional well-being as very good/good.
  • 96% are satisfied with their current state of emotional well-being.
  • 83% believe that volunteering helps their ability to recover from loss and disappointment.

While several studies have found that volunteerism provides health benefits, there is disagreement on how much volunteering is needed. The Carnegie Mellon study showed a connection between 200 volunteer hours and lower blood pressure while other studies have shown 100 volunteer hours to be the threshold at which benefits can be identified.

The “why” matters

Adding an intriguing insight among volunteerism research, a 2012 study published in Health Psychology Journal found those who volunteered on a regular basis added years to their life, but only if they were truly volunteering to help others—not to help themselves feel better.

As author and U.S. war veteran John Holmes wrote, “There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.” Now we have research to prove it.