The Proven Health Benefits of Volunteering

Posted by Dave Tomar on November 07, 2014

The Proven Health Benefits of Volunteering

Volunteering your time, energy and compassion is gratifying at any age.  However, according to newly released research, it can also be good for your health as you age.   A study out of the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences reveals that seniors may actually get an array of benefits from volunteering even beyond the reward of helping others. 

The Study

According to researchers, this study is the first of its scope, gathering together the results of 73 previously published studies spanning 45 years.  All studies involved adults over the age of 50 who had taken on formal volunteering opportunities. In order to be included in the study, prior research had to measure psychosocial, physical or cognitive outcomes correlated to volunteering. This could include happiness, physical health, depression, cognitive functions, feelings of social support and life satisfaction.

Researchers evaluated the collected articles in order to draw a case regarding the various ways that seniors stand to gain from devoting their time to social causes, non-profit groups, local community centers or charitable foundations.  It only takes a few hours a week, according to researchers, to reap the health benefits of volunteer time.  The goal of the study was to support this claim.

The Findings

The findings offer exciting evidence about the all-around health returns that seniors see when they give their time to worthy causes, organizations and people. In particular, seniors who volunteer were found have fewer symptoms of depression, better overall health, fewer functional limitations and longer life expectancy.

Researchers also found that volunteers enjoyed a feeling of appreciation from those they helped. This resulted in a generally better sense of 'psychosocial wellbeing.’  Seniors benefitted emotionally from the knowledge that they were participating in something that had value to others. 

Researchers noted that, as with everything, moderation is important. For most seniors, researchers said that 2 to 3 hours of volunteering a week were likely sufficient. After this threshold, seniors generally showed no additional health gains. 

One particularly compelling finding noted that the most vulnerable seniors, those living with chronic health conditions, could benefit most from participation in a volunteer activity. For many seniors with compromised health, volunteering may represent a safe and controlled environment in which to be active, collaborative and productive.

An article in News-Medical does point to one shortcoming in the research, citing the absence of research concerning the impact of volunteering on cognitive functioning.  The article notes that with the growing public health issues of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, additional research on the subject is needed.

The Implications

The study should be met with some enthusiasm as it represents a clear and socially constructive path to improved health, longevity and emotional wellbeing for seniors that are fit enough to volunteer. According to Senior Corps, volunteering is also a great way to pass on your knowledge, job skills and experience to younger generations.

You can be a role model to a young friend through a youth organization, a helping hand in a community garden or a companion to a senior with greater limitations than yourself.  The research says that your physical and mental outlook will improve considerably.  


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