Those Who Help Others May Be Helping Themselves
Elderly who volunteer seem to stay stronger as they age
(HealthDay News) -- People who volunteer their time to help others may reap a huge health benefit as they age.
They're much less likely to become weak and frail in their golden years, researchers have found.
"Of course, this certainly does not prove that volunteering prevents frailty, but this suggests that maybe there is something about working to help other people -- and getting outside yourself -- that has benefits for the elderly, both mentally and physically," Dr. Catherine Sarkisian, an associate professor of geriatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, told HealthDay.
"I think the most exciting thing about this subject in general is that so often we've assumed that frailty is something that you can't avoid when you get old," she said. "And for many people, that is certainly true. But it's exciting to think that maybe there are potentially many things we can do outside of medicine that can help stave off frailty."
The U.S. National Institute on Aging recommends that seniors make exercise a regular part of their lives as it can improve health and quality of life. In fact, the agency reports that regular activity may help stave off depression, some cancers, heart disease and diabetes.
But the study's finding cannot be attributed solely to keeping active. The researchers compared volunteering with paid work and with child care, and they did not find the same protective effect.
S. Jay Olshansky, a senior research scientist at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, noted that "there's always a potential selection bias going on with this sort of study, meaning that, in general, people who become frail cannot volunteer in the first place so the ones who are left behind are, by definition, the ones who are healthy."
But other than that caveat, Olshansky said he wasn't surprised by the finding.
"The evidence I've seen elsewhere suggesting that this could be beneficial is extremely promising -- and exciting, actually -- because it's the very kind of research that illustrates the malleability of people at almost every age," he said.
The data for the study came from the MacArthur Study of Successful Aging, which included more than 1,000 physically active people in their 70s. Among the study participants, almost 30 percent were involved in volunteer work, 25 percent helped with child care and about 19 percent still held paying jobs. Nearly half of the group did none of these activities, and some people did more than one.
Frailty was measured using five criteria: weight loss, weakness in grip strength, exhaustion, slow movement and low levels of physical activity. When the study began, about 3 percent of the participants were considered frail. At the end, 7 percent were classified as frail.
What the researchers could not determine was exactly why volunteering appeared to provide a strong benefit when other activities didn't. Sarkisian said that religious beliefs and a sense of personal mastery might have played a role.
On the Web
To learn more about how volunteering can benefit your health, check out information from the Corporation for National and Community Service.
SOURCES: HealthDay News; Catherine Sarkisian, M.D., associate professor, division of geriatrics, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles, and staff physician, VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, Los Angeles; S. Jay Olshansky, Ph.D., professor, epidemiology and public health, and senior research scientist, School of Public Health, University of Illinois, Chicago; Dec. 16, 2009, Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, online; U.S. National Institute on Aging (www.nihseniorhealth.gov)
Author: Serena Gordon
Publication Date: Jan. 31, 2011
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