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Volunteering Protects Against Heart Disease

Doing good for others improves the health of your heart.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. The first signs of heart disease can begin to appear during adolescence. Many studies have shown that in addition to lifestyle choices, psychosocial factors—such as stress, depression and overall well-being—all play a role in the progression of heart disease. You can add volunteering to the list of ways to protect the health of your heart and increase longevity.

Volunteering creates the ultimate win-win situation for wellness. By doing good for others you are doing good for yourself. Altruism is built into our evolutionary biology to preserve our species. We have evolved for millennia to make sure that altruism benefits us all. The benefits of altruism are a generous biologcial design that anyone can take advantage of by volunteering.

New research from Carnegie Mellon University shows that volunteering for at least 200 hours per year (4 hours a week) dramatically lowers blood pressure in older adults. High blood pressure (hypertension) triggers a chain reaction in adults that often leads to morbidity due to cardiovascular conditions. Another 2013 study from the University of British Columbia found that adolescents who volunteer for just one hour per week have healthier hearts due to a reduction in Body Mass Index, inflammation, and cholesterol levels.

The Statics on Heart Disease are Alarming:

  • About 600,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year–that’s 1 in every 4 deaths.
  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. More than half of the deaths due to heart disease in 2009 were in men.
  • Coronary heart disease is the most common type of heart disease, killing more than 385,000 people annually.
  • Every year about 715,000 Americans have a heart attack. Of these, 525,000 are a first heart attack and 190,000 happen in people who have already had a heart attack.
  • Coronary heart disease alone costs the United States $108.9 billion each year.This total includes the cost of health care services, medications, and lost productivity.

Volunteering Reduces Blood Pressure in Older Adults

On June 13, 2013 researchers from Carnegie Mellon University published a study showing that older adults who volunteer for at least 200 hours per year decrease their risk of hypertension (high blood pressure) by 40 percent. The study was published by the American Psychological Association's Psychology and Aging journal. The findings suggest that volunteer work may be an effective non-pharmaceutical option to help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease.

"Everyday, we are learning more about how negative lifestyle factors like poor diet and lack of exercise increase hypertension risk," said Rodlescia S. Sneed, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology in CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and lead author of the study. "Here, we wanted to determine if a positive lifestyle factor like volunteer work could actually reduce disease risk. And, the results give older adults an example of something that they can actively do to remain healthy and age successfully."

For the study, Sneed and Carnegie Mellon's Sheldon Cohen studied 1,164 adults between the ages of 51 and 91 from across the U.S. The participants were interviewed twice, in 2006 and 2010, and all had normal blood pressure levels at the first interview. Volunteerism, various social and psychological factors, and blood pressure were measured each time.

The results showed that those who reported at least 200 hours of volunteer work during the initial interview were 40 percent less likely to develop hypertension than those who did not volunteer when evaluated four years later. The specific type of volunteer activity was not a factor — only the amount of time spent volunteering led to increased protection from hypertension.

"As people get older, social transitions like retirement, bereavement and the departure of children from the home often leave older adults with fewer natural opportunities for social interaction," Sneed said. "Participating in volunteer activities may provide older adults with social connections that they might not have otherwise. There is strong evidence that having good social connections promotes healthy aging and reduces risk for a number of negative health outcomes."

Adolescents Who Volunteer Have Healthier Hearts

It’s important that parents, teachers, and coaches encourage volunteering in American youth. The benefits of altruism and empathetic behavior of our children will benefit all parties involved at a deep psychological and biological level. Many previous studies have shown that the habit of loving-kindness, volunteerism and altruism create a positive feedback loop and upward spiral at every level of our minds and bodies.

Researchers from University of British Columbia's Faculty of Education and Department of Psychology were curious to see how volunteering might impact physical health, particularly among adolescents. The UBC researchers found that just one hour of volunteering per week improved the health of adolescents. The findings of their study, titled “Doing Good is Good for You: Volunteer Adolescents Enjoy Healthier Hearts,” were published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

“It was encouraging to see how a social intervention to support members of the community also improved the health of adolescents,” says Hannah Schreier, who conducted this research during her doctoral studies at UBC. For the study, researchers split 106 Grade 10 students from an urban, inner-city Vancouver high school into two groups – a group that volunteered regularly for 10 weeks and a group that was wait-listed for volunteer activities. The researchers measured the students’ body mass index (BMI), inflammation and cholesterol levels before and after the study. They also assessed the students’ self-esteem, mental health, mood, and empathy.

The volunteer group of students spent one hour per week working with elementary school children in afterschool programs in their neighborhood. After 10 weeks they had lower levels of inflammation and cholesterol and lower BMIs than the students who were wait-listed.

“The volunteers who reported the greatest increases in empathy, altruistic behaviour and mental health were the ones who also saw the greatest improvements in their cardiovascular health,” says Schreier, now a postdoctoral fellow at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.

Conclusion: Daily lifestyle habits become life or death decisions.

Lifestyle choices, such as: exercise, weight control, and stress reduction all affect the risk of heart disease. Regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and having a low level of stress are all associated with lower blood pressure and reducing the risk of heart disease. But human relationships and social connections are equally important for maintaining heart health and reducing hypertension. Volunteering is a fantastic way to fortify human connections, strengthen your community and improve your life and the lives of others in the process.

If you'd like to read more on these topics please check out my Psychology Today blogs: Social Connectivity Drives the Engine of Well-Being and The Life Threatening Toll of Stress, 7 Habits for a Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body.

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