Volunteering is good for your health!
Eric Kim, a research fellow in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, recently led the first study to look at a possible link between volunteering and health care use in older adults.
Why did you decide to study volunteering from a public health perspective?
There is a growing body of research showing that volunteering is associated with better physical health and mental health outcomes, as well as better health behaviors.
Another important reason is that the number of older adults in the U.S., and other countries, is rapidly rising. Over the next 35 years, the number of 65-year-olds is going to double. As a result, the number of chronic illnesses will likely rise causing at least two outcomes: First, there will be a large increase in the number of people suffering. Second, the rising number of illnesses is going to put a huge burden on our health care system. If volunteering does affect health care use, these findings could be used to inform new strategies for increasing preventive health screenings, lowering emergency room use and health care costs, and also enhancing the health of older adults.
What did you find?
In a nationally representative sample of more than 7,000 adults aged 50 and older, we found that volunteers were more likely to engage in preventive health care than non-volunteers. For example, volunteers were 47% more likely to get cholesterol checks and 30% more likely to get flu shots. They were also more likely to get various cancerscreenings. Also, volunteers had 38% fewer overnight hospital visits than non-volunteers.
What surprised us was that this association persisted even after we controlled for a wide range of other factors including baseline health, health behaviors, social integration, stress, and personality traits like conscientiousness and neuroticism.
Volunteers packing food donations image via Shutterstock.
Read more at Harvard School of Public Health.