This week is Active Aging Week and the 2013 theme “Discover your Community,” recognizes the important role that older adults play in all sorts of communities – vocational, geographical or cultural – and celebrates their full participation in diverse areas of life.
The elderly are among the fastest growing segment of our population. Almost 35 million Americans are over the age of 65. Currently about 4 million of our citizens are 85 or older. By the year 2050, that number is expected to increase to a whopping 19 million. Helping our older generations maintain an active role in our communities not only benefits them socially and emotionally, but research suggests that staying involved is good for their physical health as well.
Volunteering is one way to get involved in the community. And while it’s good for your health at any age, it’s especially beneficial in older adults. Studies have found that those who volunteer have a lower mortality rate than those who do not, even when considering factors like the health of the participants. Volunteering has also been shown to lessen symptoms of chronic pain or heart disease.
New research from Carnegie Mellon University found an association between volunteerism and decreased risk of high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart attack, stroke, heart failure and metabolic syndrome.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Psychology and Aging, included 1,164 adults between ages 51 and 91, who all had normal blood pressure levels at the beginning of the study in 2006. Researchers interviewed the study participants about their volunteerism and other factors at the start of the study, and then again at the end of the study in 2010. The participants also had their blood pressure taken at the end of the study.
They found that older adults who spent at least 200 hours a year volunteering seemed to have a 40 percent lower risk of high blood pressure by the end of the study, compared with those who didn’t volunteer at all. Researchers didn’t find that the type of volunteer work seemed to matter in lowering hypertension risk.
“Our findings suggest that volunteerism may be an effective, non-pharmacological intervention for reducing hypertension risk. Future research should more precisely explore possible biological and psychological mechanisms linking volunteerism to hypertension, such as neurohormonal changes that may result from the initiation of volunteer activities or changes in psychological stress, social connectedness, or self-esteem that may decrease disease risk,” the researchers wrote in the study.
There are obvious societal gains in having seniors volunteer in our communities. Professionals of all kinds donate their time and services after retirement. Their expertise and knowledge is often unmatched and they have what so many of us are lacking – time. Perhaps it is fitting that this “give back” mentality is rewarded with significant health benefits.