Can volunteering lead to better health?

Eric Kim

January 5, 2016 — 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 cancer screenings. 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.

What might be behind the link between volunteering and better health and health behavior?

This is an evolving field of research, but one of the possible explanations that people have come up with is that it increases a sense of purpose in life, which has been seen to be a driving factor for a lot of positive health outcomes. Volunteering also increases social connections, which have been linked to better health for a wide range of reasons. For example, people can share and receive information about things like where to buy healthy foods at the best prices or remind one another of which health screenings to get. People can also provide and receive instrumental support, such as sharing resources like rides to medical appointments. Social networks also provide emotional and psychological support, and that leads to better health

In this study, we weren’t able to tell what types of volunteering activity people were doing. This may make a difference. For example, if someone was volunteering in a health care context, they may be able to get more knowledge about a particular type of preventive behavior.

But regardless of the type of activity, more older adults volunteering would be a win-win for society and the volunteers themselves. The volunteers will likely improve their own health. And, if volunteering does increase preventive health care use and decrease hospital visits, that could help control health care costs at the societal level. In addition, the organizations working with the volunteers would benefit from the decades of wisdom that the volunteers have accrued.

Seeing as this is the time of year for New Year’s resolutions, people may want to consider volunteering to not only help society but also their own health. I recommend that people check out to learn more about opportunities in their area.

— Amy Roeder

Photo: Craig LaPlante