Volunteering is often recommended for older adults looking to become more active in their communities, but are there health benefits as well?   It does according to Stephanie Brown and her colleagues.   Brown, an associate professor at Stony Brook University’s Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics, has been at the forefront of research examining the psychosocial benefits of volunteering, especially for older adults. 

Though volunteering can cover a wide variety of ways that people can help others,  the most typical way that people become volunteers is through formal volunteer agencies or organizations.    The nature of the cause, whether it focuses on specific people or the community at large, tends not to matter as much as the spirit of volunteering itself.   

The actual percentage of people who donate time to volunteer organizations tends to remain relatively stable.   According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 64.5 million people volunteered through or for an organization at least once in 2012 (26.5 per cent of the total U.S. population).   Though women tend to be more likely to volunteer than men across all age groups, the overall volunteer rate tends to taper off as people grow older with people between 35 and 44 being most likely to volunteer.

Still, volunteers come from all segments of society and all ages and their unpaid labour easily runs into billions of hours each year.   But what are the benefits of volunteering, especially for older volunteers?     According to Stephanie Brown and her colleagues, evolutionary psychology suggests that helping behaviour can have definite benefits which improve the psychological and physical well-being of the helper as well as the ones being helped.    

Based on previous research, Brown and her colleagues have shown that providing assistance to other people helps manage stress, provide greater relationship satisfaction, reduced the depression resulting from loss of a spouse, and can even reduce risk of mortality.    Though the relationship between volunteering and mortality  appears strong even when medical history is considered, the question of why volunteers live longer than non-volunteers is still unanswered.    Is there a minimum amount of volunteering older adults needed to get the health benefits or is there a direct relationship between number of hours spent volunteering and improved health?    For that matter, can spending too much time volunteering be counterproductive?  

Two  hypotheses have been suggested to help explain the  health benefits that can result from volunteering.   According to the compensatory hypothesis, older individuals with fewer resources, i.e. social and community ties,  are more likely to get health benefits from volunteering.  In other words, individuals who are lonelier due to lack of significant relationships in their lives can use volunteering to provide them with the support network they might otherwise lack.   In the complementary hypothesis however, volunteering complements the resources that older adults already have.   For that reason, people with already strong social support networks (family, friends, community ties) can use volunteering to reinforce these networks which helps them live longer.  

In a new study which was recently reported in Psychology and Aging,  researchers at Stony Brook and Arizona State University carried out a meta-analysis of previous research studies looking at volunteering and mortality.    Through direct analysis of previous findings, Stephanie Brown and her colleagues were able to test the relationship between volunteering and mortality across different subsamples (whether volunteers had strong or weak social support networks) as well as the influence of other moderating variables such as medical history.

A total of fourteen studies were used of which nine were based in the United States with the other studies being from Israel and Taiwan.    The age of volunteers ranged from 55 to 75 with an average age of 66.   Using extensive statistical analysis, the researchers concluded that:

  • Even when medical history, age, socioeconomic status, social support network, marital status, and physical/emotional health were taken into consideration, volunteering appears to reduce risk of death by 25 percent. 
  • Religious involvement appears to boost the link between volunteering and mortality risk.    This may be due to the increased resources from religion-based activities which can complement the health benefits of volunteering
  • There are also wide variations between different studies so the question of whether high levels of volunteering can be counterproductive in terms of the health of older volunteers has yet to be answered.

While these results are encouraging,  Brown and her fellow researchers stress that there are a number of limitations that need to be considered before concluding that volunteering helps people live longer.   First of all, there is the usual warning that correlation does not equal causation.   To find out whether there is a real causal relationship at work,, better experimental studies would have to be carried out to look at moderator variables such as number of hours spent volunteering.  

Also, even if a clear causal relationship was established, the question of why volunteering helps people live longer would have to be answered.    Based on evolutionary biology and attachment theory,  Brown et al have proposed a “caregiving system” model linking prosocial behaviour with mortality.     According to the model, helping behaviour leads to feelings of perceived usefulness and competence as well as providing social integration and support.   This, in turn, leads to positive emotions and a sense of reward which improves the volunteer’s ability to regulate stress.   Considering the role that stress plays on the immune system, the caregiving system model proposes that older volunteers are potentially better able to resist disease and can live longer as a result.    Drawing on animal models of parenting and human neuroimaging studies of parents interacting with children, the model also proposes that the helping motivation activates neural circuits linked to parenting.   Hormones such as oxytocin and progesterone are released as a result which regulate stress.  

The caregiving system model also proposes that the health benefits resulting from helping behaviour have two important limitations.   First of all, the helper has to have resources available to provide help.   Overworked volunteers are usually too stressed to get real health benefits from helping people.   That’s why having volunteers take care of themselves is an important part of any organized activity, both to prevent burnout and to ensure that the quality of care they provide isn’t compromised.   Also, the need for help has to be genuine.   This means that there has to be a trusting relationship between the helper and the one being helped.  If there is any sense that the volunteer is being exploited or abused, the benefit isn’t there.

Is organizational volunteering, i.e., volunteering as part of a larger organization such as the American Red Cross, the best way to gain health benefits from helping others?   Unfortunately, while most helping behaviour occurs in less formal ways, such as caring for family members or friends, research examining the health benefits involved is still limited.   Most studies tend to focus on the people needing help instead of providing it, except for when helping behaviour leads to burnout.    For that matter, even caring for pets can provide important health benefits including reduced depression, lower blood pressure and better coping with stress, many of the same benefits seen in volunteering.

Learning more about the complex relationship between helping behaviour and health will likely provide important information about how to keep older adults healthy longer.   In the meantime, volunteering appears to be a definite win-win scenario, both in terms of the value it provides to other people as well as the medical and emotional benefits of helping others.

Ironically, while volunteering has been shown to have clear medical benefits for older adults, we are already seeing a critical shortage of volunteers which is likely to get worse in the years to come.    As the baby boom generation grows older, there will certainly be more people in need, especially with new dementia cases.  The demand for volunteers, whether through formal organizations or acting on their own, will be acute.    People who wish to get involved have far more opportunities to help than they did in the past.  Along with the traditional volunteering route, there has also been a rise in online volunteer opportunities.   More research is still needed to find out whether online helping can provide the same health benefits as face-to-face volunteer opportunities though.

So what does all this mean in terms of new health policies for older adults?  In addition to helping older adults remain mentally and physically active, especially after retirement, encouraging people to become volunteers could fill a critical need for helpers that is being felt in most health fields.   Although volunteering is probably not a one-size-fits-all solution for all older adults, learning more about how helping behaviour is  linked to the aging process may provide critical benefits in the years to come.

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