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Volunteering In Older Years Boosts Physical Health

Update Date: Oct 25, 2013 12:46 PM EDT
Volunteer, help,
We looked at older adults engaging in a variety of productive activities, but there is something really distinctive about volunteering that positively affects a person's physical health, " said Seoyoun Kim, a doctoral student in sociology and gerontology from Purdue University. (Photo : U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Midwest Region/ Flickr)

New studies show that older adults who volunteer on a weekly and yearly basis are in better physical health than those adults similar in ages who do not volunteer.

"In gerontology we are interested in people living well as they live longer," Seoyoun Kim, Purdue University sociology and gerontology doctoral student and lead researcher, said in a news release. "The relationship between volunteering and inflammation is telling because it's related to their quality of life and disease prevention."

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Kim and Kenneth F. Ferraro, a Purdue distinguished professor of sociology assessed the physical wellness in older adults activities such as in volunteering, caregiving, community engagement and the employment of people living independently.

For the study, researchers wanted to deliver the physiological health analysis of older adults in a unique way.

"By using a biomarker, which is like a canary in the mine, we can clinically detect a person's physiological health, whether it has been diagnosed or not," Ferraro said.

A biomarker is when an organism is measured in order to determine whether a person has a disease or infection.

"We believe we are the first to document this link by measuring chronic inflammation," said Kenneth F. Ferraro, a Purdue distinguished professor of sociology and co-researcher.

Researchers took a look at data collected in 2005-06 from 1,790 people aged 57-85. The data came from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project which measure the C-reactive protein (CRP). CRP is known to increase with age and high amounts of it can cause cardiovascular and chronic disease.

To measure CRP in the individuals, adults were asked to take a survey about their health and blood samples were taken from them.

"They found that CRP was about 15 percent lower for people who volunteered several times per year than for those who did not volunteer during the past year," reported Purdue.

In addition Purdue reported, "The sociologists found that people ages 70-85 who regularly volunteered have younger biological profiles than those ages 58-69 who infrequently volunteer.

CRP was found to be 25 percent lower for those who volunteered per week compared to those didn't volunteer at all.

There were no negative findings for those adults who volunteered the most.

"Why this effect? Older adults are either losing or reducing their involvement in highly institutionalized roles, such as retirement or their children leaving the home," Kim said. "Volunteering allows them to engage in meaningful roles and stay active."

Researchers also found that in analyzing other activities and their CRP's, separate from volunteering, there was no positive correlation.  

"Volunteering helps many people see what is important in life and how fortunate we are," Ferraro said. "Having the feeling that you are making difference in a person's life is powerful, and our own problems may not seem so important.

The findings are published in the journal The Gerontologist.

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