Volunteering is linked to better mental and physical health in adults

Kim, E. S., Whillans, A. V., Lee, M. T., Chen, Y., & VanderWeele, T. J. (2020). Volunteering and Subsequent Health and Well-Being in Older Adults: An Outcome-Wide Longitudinal Approach. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2020.03.004

Summarized by Monica Arkin

Notes of Interest:

  • Researchers find physical and mental health benefits for adults ages 50+ who volunteer regularly.
  • Compared to adults who do not volunteer, those who volunteer at least 100 hours per year (approx. 2 hours each week) had better mental health outcomes such as positivity, optimism, and purpose in life.
  • Volunteering was also associated with fewer poor mental health outcomes, like depression, hopelessness, and loneliness.
  • Those who volunteer at least 100 hours per year also had reduced risk of mortality, fewer physical limitations, and more physical activity.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Growing evidence documents strong associations between volunteering and favorable health and well-being outcomes. However, epidemiological studies have not evaluated whether changes in volunteering are associated with subsequent health and well-being outcomes. Data were from 12,998 participants in the Health and Retirement Study—a large, diverse, prospective, and nationally representative cohort of U.S. adults aged >50 years. Using multiple logistic, linear, and generalized linear regression models, this study evaluated if changes in volunteering were associated with 34 indicators of physical health, health behaviors, and psychosocial well-being. Models adjusted for sociodemographics, physical health, health behaviors, psychosocial factors, and personality, as well as volunteering and all outcomes in the prebaseline wave. Results accounted for multiple testing and data were analyzed in 2019. During the 4-year follow-up period, participants who volunteered ≥100 hours/year (versus 0 hours/year) had a reduced risk of mortality and physical functioning limitations, higher physical activity, and better psychosocial outcomes (higher: positive affect, optimism, and purpose in life; lower: depressive symptoms, hopelessness, loneliness, and infrequent contact with friends). Volunteering was not associated with other physical health outcomes (diabetes, hypertension, stroke, cancer, heart disease, lung disease, arthritis, overweight/obesity, cognitive impairment, and chronic pain), health behaviors (binge drinking, smoking, and sleep problems), or psychosocial outcomes (life satisfaction, mastery, health/financial mastery, depression, negative affect, perceived constraints, and contact with other family/children). With further research, volunteering is an activity that physicians might suggest to their willing and able patients as a way of simultaneously enhancing health and society.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Volunteering ≥100 hours/year (approximately 2 hours/ week) was associated with a reduced risk of mortality and physical functioning limitations, higher physical activity, and several beneficial psychosocial outcomes. The growing older adult population possesses a vast array of skills and experiences that can be leveraged for the greater good of society via volunteering. With further research, policies and interventions aimed at encouraging more volunteering it might be an innovative way of simultaneously enhancing society and fostering a trajectory of healthy aging (on some indicators) in the large and rapidly growing population of older adults.

To access this article, click here.