Volunteering Promotes Health and Happiness for Older Adults

A new study appearing in the Psychological Bulletin is the first to examine peer-reviewed evidence to investigate the psychosocial health and wellness benefits of volunteerism in the older adult population, according to a report by Psychology Today. It turns out that volunteering has positive impacts on health and happiness among older adults, with particular benefits for those with chronic health conditions.

Meta-analysis looks at the benefits of volunteering on health and wellness Volunteering Benefits Older Adults

The study involved the review of 73 studies, all published within the past 45 years, examining adults age 50 and older who were or are serving in a formal volunteer capacity.All studies reviewed in this analysis the psychosocial, physical, and/or cognitive outcomes associated with volunteering, including:

  • Happiness
  • Physical health
  • Depression
  • Cognitive functioning
  • Social support
  • Life satisfaction

Volunteerism provides numerous positive benefits for older adults

Researchers say they found compelling evidence that volunteerism is a beneficial activity for older adults. A few key findings from the analysis:

  • Volunteering is associated with longevity, fewer symptoms of depression, fewer functional limitations, and better overall health.
  • When it comes to volunteering, more is not always better. The optimal amount of volunteering is about 100 hours annually, or two to three hours per week. After this mark, the benefits of volunteering plateau.
  • Seniors who are more vulnerable, such as those suffering from chronic health conditions, stand to reap the most benefits from volunteering.
  • Volunteering creates a feeling of being needed and/or appreciated, which seems to amplify the overall health and wellness benefits for volunteers.

Increased physical activity adds to the social, emotional, and physical health benefits

One possible reason for some of the health benefits realized through volunteering is the increase in physical activity. Seniors volunteering to deliver Meals on Wheels to aging or disabled adults in their homes are more physically active than those who maintain a more sedentary lifestyle, so seniors are benefiting not only from the social interaction and feel-good benefits of volunteering, but the added physical activity which can help ward off chronic disease.

Specifically, researchers find that a moderate amount of volunteering (around the 100-hours-annually mark) is associated with less hypertension and fewer hip fractures, when comparing seniors who volunteer to those who do not.

Troubling gaps in research points to areas for future study

Researchers also found some intriguing gaps in prior research that may point to future areas of study. For example, they found very few studies which have investigated the link between volunteerism and cognitive functioning. They found not one study that has looked for an association between volunteering and the risk of dementia, or even an association between volunteering and other health conditions that have been previously associated with a higher risk of dementia, such as stroke or diabetes.

With dementia rates expected to double over the next two decades, Nicole Anderson, Ph.D., who led the team of Canadian and American academics in this meta-analysis, encourages researchers to delve into the potential benefits of volunteerism on cognitive functioning in older adults. The research report suggests a “comprehensive battery of neuropsychological tests, so that the association of volunteering with the risks of various forms of dementia and its precursor, mild cognitive impairment, could be ascertained.”

Do you volunteer in your local community? Tell us about the volunteer activities you enjoy and how volunteering has been beneficial for you in the comments below.

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