Seniors who spend time doing good for others may also find some surprising benefits for themselves. According to a meta-analysis from the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences, older adults who contribute to volunteer causes could have better overall health and be less likely to suffer from many impairments than their peers.
Room for further research
The analysis' authors pointed out that, despite the 73 studies on volunteering that they looked at, the link to many conditions had been neglected by past researchers. For instance, they found no studies that examined the association between volunteering and dementia, diabetes or stroke. Researchers on the new study also said that there were few trials that examined the effects of volunteering on cognitive function.
For issues that had been studied, however, volunteering often appeared to have positive effects. Seniors who volunteered more were less likely to suffer from depression or physical limitations, and tended to live longer while enjoying better health. They also had fewer hip fractures and a lower incidence of high blood pressure.
"Taken together, these results suggest that volunteering is associated with health improvements and increased physical activity – changes that one would expect to offer protection against a variety of health conditions," lead researcher Nicole Anderson said.
Differences in impact
Seniors who already had chronic health conditions may get the greatest health benefit from volunteering. However, it wasn't shown that greater levels of volunteer activity uniformly led to better health. Beyond 100 hours of volunteer work per year, or about three hours per week, seniors saw no additional benefit for their efforts. The improvements that volunteers gained to their subjective well-being also varied based on the recognition that they received from others. Seniors who felt that their time was more appreciated saw the greatest psychological benefits.
Known to help
The study may have been among the first to definitively show how widespread the impacts of volunteering can be, but the idea that charitable work has health benefits is not new. Helpguide.org provided a summary of some of the health benefits of volunteering, even spelling out why the activity might be helpful. Since volunteering involves so many factors that have been shown to reduce depression, fighting this disease could be one of its biggest benefits. For instance, volunteering is a good way to make social connections, which has been shown to bolster mood, according to the source.
Helpguide.org also said that volunteering can help people remain physically active and boost self-confidence. These benefits could both play a big part in combating depression. According to the National Institutes of Health, one of the primary symptoms of depression is a sense of worthlessness. To reduce these feelings, the NIH suggested taking part in meaningful activities and maintaining positive social relationships, both of which volunteering can provide. The source also recommended remaining physically active to ward off the disease's symptoms. Seniors who suffer from depression may often mistake their symptoms for those of another disease or refuse to see a doctor for the illness. Volunteering could be a way to help ward off depression without the need for a diagnosis or a visit to the doctor.