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Volunteer Work Prolongs Lives of Frail Elderly

New research finds that among the elderly, functional limitations are associated with an increased risk of dying — but only for those who don’t do volunteer work.
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If you’re getting up in years, and the basic activities of daily living have become something of a struggle, doing volunteer work is probably the last thing on your mind. But new research suggests there’s an excellent reason to make the effort.

You may actually live longer.

That’s the conclusion of a study just published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, which examined death rates of a representative sample of American seniors. It found difficulties with basic daily activities, including those caused by decreased mobility or upper-arm strength, “are associated with an increased risk of dying only among participants who almost never or never volunteered.”

The study adds to the mounting evidence linking volunteering with health, well-being and longevity, and suggests this association may be particularly significant toward the end of life. “Although it may be more difficult for older adults with functional limitations to volunteer,” the researchers conclude, “they may receive important benefits from doing so.”

A research team led by Arizona State University psychologist Morris Okun looked at data on 868 participants in the Later Life Study of Social Exchanges. The participants, who participated in 70-minute-long interviews in the year 2000, were all “cognitively functional” U.S. residents between the age of 65 and 91.

Sixty-nine percent of the seniors said they had volunteered “never or almost never.” The others reported they volunteered somewhere between once a day and once a month. They were also asked 15 questions regarding the level of difficulty they experienced with the activities of daily living.

Six years later, 25 percent of the participants had died. The researchers used a variety of statistical methods to compare death rates, functional limitations and volunteer activity.

They found that “among older adults with high functional limitations, the risk of death is approximately three times greater for those who did little or no volunteering, relative to those who volunteer more frequently.” Volunteer work, they concluded, “buffers the association between functional limitations and the risk of dying.”

Why does volunteering have such a positive effect? Okun and his colleagues present several possible explanations. “Volunteering may offset the loss of purpose in life that occurs with aging and that may be amplified by functional limitations,” they write. It appears that a sense of purpose not only makes younger people more attractive; for older adults, it “has been shown to postpone mortality.”

Seniors may also get a health boost from the sense of personal competence and accomplishment that volunteer work can provide. As the researchers note, “It may be that the threat to feelings of competence posed by functional limitations is mitigated by the esteem-boosting effects of engaging in volunteer activities.”

Either way, “strategies should be identified to encourage older adults with mild or moderate functional limitations to volunteer,” the researchers conclude. Perhaps the ingredients for a long life can be found in the appreciative faces of the people we’ve helped.