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Volunteering for Health

February 8, 2012 Written by JP       [Font too small?]

I recently had the pleasure of visiting a senior community center in Santa Monica, California. While touring the facility, I was impressed by the emphasis placed on volunteering opportunities – from peer counseling to reading programs and even free lunch service. Doing good may be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of giving back to the community. But, the administrators of this senior center are also keenly aware of another benefit of volunteerism: it improves mental and physical health in more ways than one.

According to a recent review in the journal Maturitas, 2011 was declared the ‘European Year of Volunteering’. In light of that, researchers from Northumbria University School of Health in the UK investigated the relative health impact of volunteering in aging populations. Their conclusions were positive, albeit, tepid in tone. According to the authors of the summary, “The majority of the studies concluded that there is a positive association between older people’s quality of life and engagement in volunteering”. However, they go on to state, “there are still major gaps in our understanding of who actually benefits, the social and cultural context of volunteering and its role in reducing health and social inequities”.

I urge everyone reading this column not to let any perceived gaps in knowledge dissuade you from engaging in volunteering to promote better health and the greater good. Study after study, evaluating people from all over the world, indicate that volunteers benefit physically (lower rates of chronic disease, hypertension and mortality) and psychologically (improved mood, quality of life and self esteem). These facts aren’t being disputed in any serious manner. The only thing that’s called for is a more detailed look into how and why volunteerism yields such positive results. Thankfully, studies of this nature are beginning to appear in the medical literature.

A current publication in the journal Health Psychology is a landmark study that may shape the future design of volunteering programs. It reports that individuals who only volunteer for “self-oriented” reasons are less likely to benefit from a health standpoint. However, those who volunteer “regularly and frequently” for the benefit of others do, in fact, demonstrate a lower risk of mortality. This judgement is based on a 4 year examination of the link between mortality and volunteering motives in a senior population. What’s also important to note is that volunteerism appears to benefit those who are leading a somewhat isolated existence the most. Therefore, adopting a more altruistic mindset and reaching out to lonely members of society may be an excellent path forward for our communities and our health care system.

To learn more about the studies referenced in today’s column, please click on the following links:

Study 1 – Improving Quality of Life in Ageing Populations: What Can (link)

Study 2 - Volunteering and Hypertension Risk in Later Life (link)

Study 3 – Does the Relation Between Volunteering and Well-Being Vary(link)

Study 4 - Volunteering Predicts Happiness Among Older Māori and Non-Māori (link)

Study 5 - The Personal Value of Being a Palliative Care Community Volunteer (link)

Study 6 - Quality of Life and Voluntary Work Among the Elderly (link)

Study 7 - The Effect of Productive Activities on Depressive Symptoms Among (link)

Study 8 - Intergenerational Volunteering and Quality of Life: Mixed Methods (link)

Study 9 - Motives for Volunteering are Associated with Mortality Risk in Older (link)

Study 10 - Volunteering, Driving Status and Mortality in US Retirees (link)

Peer Support Improves Exercise Compliance in Older Adults

Source: J Phys Act Health. 2011 Sep;8 Suppl 2:S257-66. (link)


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2 Comments & Updates to “Volunteering for Health”

  1. Kyle Smith Says:

    I am so glad somebody finally wrote about this. I think its something that people don’t consider very often and I believe more of us need to ge involved. I love the article.

  2. JP Says:

    Thanks a lot, Kyle! :)

    Be well!

    JP

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