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Vital Signs


Vital Signs

Winter 2011

Volunteering Benefits Your Health


VS-Winter11-Volunteer HealthIt is well known that volunteer work contributes to building better communities, but can it also produce benefits to the volunteer’s health? For older adults, a study headed by UCLA geriatrician Catherine Sarkisian, M.D., M.S.P.H., suggests it might.

Dr. Sarkisian’s group found that among high-functioning seniors, those who participate in volunteer work are significantly less likely to become frail than those who don’t, even after taking into account factors such as age, mental function and disability levels.

“Our study doesn’t prove that volunteering prevents frailty, but we do know that seniors who volunteer are less likely to become frail,” Dr. Sarkisian says. “For reasons that we’re just beginning to understand, there does seem to be a physical benefit to getting outside yourself and helping others.”

Geriatric frailty — characterized by slow gait, weak grip, weight loss, low physical activity and low energy — increases older adults’ vulnerability to everything from falls and hospitalizations to the need to be admitted to a nursing home; it also raises their mortality risk. Previous research has found that involvement in productive activities that require physical activity can postpone age-associated declines in physical functioning. But Dr. Sarkisian’s study suggests something more could be at play — especially considering that paid work and childcare didn’t lower the frailty risk the way volunteering did.

That “something” could have to do with the benefits for volunteers of knowing they are contributing altruistically. “You feel more positive and you’re around other positive people, which can be infectious in the same way that depression and psychological stress can be infectious,” says Gary Small, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and director of the Memory and Aging Research Center and the UCLA Center on Aging. “We are social animals by nature, and we respond to cues from each other.”

Drs. Sarkisian and Small point out that the type of volunteer work seniors choose is important. “Volunteers want something from the experience,” Dr. Small says. “You don’t want it to feel like drudgery. It should be something you’re passionate about, and that allows you to engage mentally and interact with others.”

The strong network of social support that is likely to come from the volunteer experience is particularly beneficial for older adults, says Maija Sanna, M.D., a geriatrician at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica. “As people get older, it’s a time when some of their friends are passing away and they are at risk of becoming isolated,” Dr. Sanna explains. “Those who maintain social connections, particularly with other seniors, tend to do better.”

For information about UCLA Health Volunteer Services, go to: www.uclahealth.org/volunteer

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