Volunteering is Good for the Heart (In More Ways Than One!)
Cardiovascular health is an important facet of overall wellness, as heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States¹ and almost half of Americans either have high blood pressure or take blood pressure medication². Common methods to address heart conditions include medication, exercise, and diet. Another management approach involves lifestyle changes, such as reducing stress and giving up smoking. But what if your doctor prescribed community service to address your high blood pressure? This may someday be a possibility, as there is growing evidence to link volunteering to better cardiovascular and general health.
A 2013 study³ analyzed data obtained from the Health and Retirement Study, a national longitudinal survey of community-dwelling adults over the age of 50. Hours of volunteer work in a 12 month period and blood pressure were recorded as a baseline in 2006 and then reassessed 4 years later. Their analysis found that individuals who had volunteered at least 200 hours in 12 months were less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers. Another study also utilized data from the Health and Retirement Study to examine the association between volunteerism and risk factors for cardiovascular disease. They found that middle aged volunteers (51-64 years old) were less likely to have larger waist circumferences, poor cholesterol levels, elevated blood sugar, and metabolic syndrome and older volunteers (65+years old) were less likely to have high blood pressure than non-volunteers.
Other studies that utilized data from the Health and Retirement Study have also found correlations between volunteering and other positive health outcomes. Volunteers were more likely to seek preventative care, such as receiving the flu shot, cholesterol tests, mammograms, pap smears, and prostate exams. There was also a correlation between volunteerism and fewer nights in the hospital, lower mortality rates, higher physical activity levels, and better mental health.
One important thing to keep in mind is that these studies all gathered their data from the same source, the Health and Retirement Study. Additionally, they are all prospective studies, which means they follow the same group of people to see what factors increase or reduce their risk of a certain outcome. This study design establishes a correlation between a factor and an outcome, but doesn’t prove a cause and effect relationship. Therefore, volunteering doesn’t necessarily prevent heart disease and not volunteering doesn’t cause it.
So that begs the question, what is it about volunteering that seems to correlate with healthier and happier people? Perhaps a key factor is the inherent connectedness that comes with giving back. Most volunteer work is done outside the home and oftentimes alongside other people. The relationships people form with their community and it’s members can create a network of information, resources, and support. This may translate to volunteers gaining knowledge about wellness and healthcare that they otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to staying at home. In addition, the social connections volunteers form likely reduce feelings of loneliness and they have people in their lives to check in on them and their health.
Volunteering also provides people with a sense of purpose. The studies referenced above focused on individuals who were over 50 years of age, both because that is when people tend to develop health issues, and when difficult changes in one’s life often start occurring; kids moving out of the house, loss of loved ones, retirement, difficulty participating in physical activities. As we get older, our world tends to get smaller and more inward. Volunteering is a means of finding the motivation and purpose to get up and walk out of the house. It also builds self-esteem, promotes self-efficacy, and is fulfilling. Perhaps volunteers have better wellness because they know they deserve to be healthy, feel capable and empowered to manage their health, and experience positive reinforcement by being able to help others.
Medication, diet, and exercise are all important tools for disease prevention and managing cardiovascular conditions. However, what if the missing puzzle piece of mental and physical wellness isn’t what we do for ourselves, but what we do for others? Maybe the secret to better health is getting better together.
- “Heart Disease Facts|Cdc.Gov.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7 Feb. 2022, https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm
- “Facts About Hypertension| Cdc.Gov.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 27 Sept. 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/bloodpressure/facts.htm
- Sneed, R. S., & Cohen, S. (2013). A prospective study of volunteerism and hypertension risk in older adults. Psychology and Aging, 28(2), 578–586.
- Burr, J.A., Han, S.H., Tavares, J.L. (2016) Volunteering and Cardiovascular Disease Risk: Does Helping Others Get “Under the Skin?”, The Gerontologist, Volume 56, Issue 5, 937–947
- Kim, E.S, & Konrath, S. (2016). Volunteering is prospectively associated with Health care use among older adults. Social Science & Medicine, Volume 149, 122-129.
- 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 Preventative Medicine, Volume 59, Issue 2. 176-186.