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19. January 2016

The Medical Benefits of Volunteering

by Deborah Dellinger, Director, Not-for-Profit Operations, My Next Season

Baby Boomers are the most active, fit, and wealthy generation to date. As they transition by the droves out of major corporations many are opting for next careers that include skills-based volunteerism. Perhaps the reason for this surge is found in the science of volunteering: giving back is actually good for you.

As the growing body of research indicates, volunteering benefits people physically and leads to a longer, happier life. Multiple studies find those who volunteer increase their life span (Sabin, 1993; Rogers, 1996; Musick et al., 1999). In fact, a study from researchers in California reports a 63% decrease in mortality risk for volunteers (Oman et al., 1999). Mortality rates were lower by 44% in a longitudinal study conducted in California of older volunteers (Oman et al., 1999). Another longitudinal study on aging concludes that frequent volunteering significantly reduces mortality rates compared to people who did not volunteer (Harris and Thoreson, 2005).

Stephanie Brown, Ph.D., associate professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook, cites another study in Detroit which asked 423 married couples if they helped anyone besides each other the previous year. Those who reported they did help others were 50 % less likely to die over the next five years. A Huffington Post article written by Hilary Young in 2013 states researchers at the University of Exeter Medical Center in England examined data from 40 studies and after analyzing the information, concluded volunteers had a 20% lower risk of death than their non-volunteering peers over the same time frame.

The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) reports people who volunteer have lower rates of depression, lower incidence of heart disease, and maintain a higher functional ability; that is the ability to perform normal activities including those as they relate to daily tasks. A study from Carnegie Mellon, published in Psychology Today in June 2013, reports adults over the age of 50 who volunteer regularly are less likely to develop hypertension. In fact, a modest amount of volunteer activity can lower the risk of renal failure and cognitive impairment in addition to the aforementioned hypertension and cardiovascular disease, according to an article published by the Population Reference Bureau (Today’s Research on Aging, Issue 21, August 2011).

Interestingly, those whose volunteerism is motivated by altruism and interest and who have a positive view of other people receive the most benefit (Boyle, Rush University Medical Center 2012, Poulin, 2014). Volunteering with two charitable organizations for no more than 100 hours annually, but not less than 40 seems optimal according to researchers (Oman et al., 1999; Lum and Lightfoot, 2005; Musick et al., 1999). Lum and Lightfoot suggest another health benefit of volunteering may be stronger social networks and increased access to resources thus fortifying our ability to cope with aging and medical challenges.

According to a 2013 UnitedHealth Group survey, 76% of people who volunteered reported the experience made them feel healthier, and 78% felt the work lowered their stress levels.

Stephen G. Post, Ph.D., professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University and author of The Hidden Gifts of Helping, explains that in giving back, the mesolimbic system of the brain, known as the reward pathway, activates chemicals which make us feel good such as dopamine and serotonin. Dr. Brown further explains that oxytocin, called the compassion hormone, is released when volunteering or helping. According to Brown, “When we help others, we think that there is a release of oxytocin and that interferes with the stress response.” Giving back not only enables feelings of trust and peace but curtails the presence of stress hormones such as cortisol. And when oxytocin is released in your system, it aids in cell repair and growth.

Study after study concludes that giving back in terms of volunteering, especially in areas of expertise or passion, is an important component in living longer and well. Additionally, studies have found that those who volunteer earlier in life (and continue to volunteer) have better health even when the study controlled for other variables including economic status and illness (Morrow-Howell et al., 2003; Lum and Lightfoot, 2005). Importantly, multiple studies show that when people with serious or chronic illness volunteer, they realize better than expected quality of life beyond the benefit of medical treatment received (Arnstein et al., 2002; Sullivan and Sullivan, 1997).

Baby boomers volunteer more than the general population (27.2% vs. 25.3%), giving more hours of service per capita (52 vs.32) according to CNCS.

A core aspect of My Next Season is enabling skills-based volunteerism by matching executives’ skills and interests with not-for-profits in need of those capabilities. My Next Season believes that executives who transition well from productivity to purpose live longer, happier lives. We possess a passion for giving back; we offer our clients opportunities to engage in Executive Advising (mentoring, leading) in their areas of expertise and passion as part of the national movement of skills-based volunteerism and in acknowledgement of their brilliance, wisdom, and energy.

Studies on volunteering, from older adults to younger kids, find that for people to stick with it, they need to be doing something that excites them, that they feel called to do. Volunteering is successful when the individual is doing something that he or she feels confident to do.

As the boomer generation continues to come of age, a favorite author’s truth resonates: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” The Lorax by Dr. Seuss.

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