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New meaning for ‘healthy volunteers’

Most medical research involves recruiting healthy volunteers to test a certain drug or experimental treatment. But a study recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine explores how the act of volunteering itself has health and longevity benefits, specifically for adults over 50. 

The Harvard-led study found that older adults who do volunteer work in their communities for at least 100 hours a year, or about two hours per week, are significantly less likely to die from any cause. They also are more active, have fewer physical limitations, and experience greater overall well-being compared to people who do not volunteer.  

“Humans are social creatures by nature. Perhaps this is why our minds and bodies are rewarded when we give to others,” said Harvard’s lead researcher Eric S. Kim, Ph.D.  “Our results show that volunteerism among older adults doesn’t just strengthen communities, but enriches our own lives by strengthening our bonds to others, helping us feel a sense of purpose and well-being, and protecting us from feelings of loneliness, depression, and hopelessness.” 

The research was based on face-to-face interviews, survey responses and other data from nearly 13,000 participants randomly selected from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative sample of older Americans. Two groups of participants were tracked over four years between 2010 and 2016. 

It evaluated the effects of volunteering on 34 distinct physical health and psychological/social well-being outcomes, which allowed the researchers to evaluate which aspects of health volunteerism does – and does not – appear to influence.

For example, even while reducing the risk of death, the study did not find links between volunteering and improvements to chronic physical conditions or diseases such as arthritis, cancer, diabetes, heart disease or hypertension.

The study was also completed prior to the global COVID-19 pandemic, which makes volunteering as risky right now as other types of social activity. Even so, Kim added that “now might be a particular moment in history when society needs your service the most. If you are able to do so while abiding by health guidelines, you not only can help to heal and repair the world, but you can help yourself as well.”

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