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Good results--Volunteers receive improved health in return

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March 31st, 2009
Volunteering might sound like an extracurricular activity, but it could be biologically programmed. Research has shown that giving to others benefits the giver more than the receiver, and the benefits especially for older adults are tremendous. Born to give Some people seem like "born givers." Stephanie Brown, Ph.D., from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, has discovered that, in fact, all of us may be made this way. "My work suggests that biological responses motivate individuals to care for one another, triggered by the perception that someone is in need," she says. "When it s engaged, this motivational system is beneficial for health because it helps reduce exposure to harmful or toxic levels of stress." Stress buster While stress might be so common that it seems comfortable, it s worth working against. "Stress is an inflammatory process, releasing hormones that can damage the body," explains stress management expert Debbie Mandel, M.A. Significantly, stress increases a person s risk of cardiovascular disease by 50%, according to a study recently published in theJournal of the American College of Cardiology. "A great deal of stress stems from a loss of identity and a lack of empowerment," Mandel says. She cites not having a job or getting older as situations that may trigger these feelings. Volunteering provides an avenue through which to channel that energy into something positive. "When you do volunteer work, you see yourself benevolently reflected in someone else s eyes, and you feel like you matter to the world." Mind altering Older adults report increased life satisfaction and a sense of purpose from volunteering. So it is not surprising that a major benefit of this activity is improved mental health. "Volunteering helps prevent depression," says Austin Welsh, M.D. "The mental benefits are numerous." And while depression may prevent middle-aged people from volunteering, it actually compels older adults to participate, according to the Americans Changing Lives survey. Balanced body Whether you re moving around or not while you re doing it, volunteering enhances physical well-being. In one study, researchers found that those who had not volunteered were 33% more likely to report bad health than people who volunteered for at least 100 hours a year. Other studies have shown that people with chronic pain experience less pain and levels of disability after volunteering to help other chronic pain sufferers. More life Helping others may be so beneficial that it prolongs the giver s life. Several studies support the idea that volunteering increases mortality rates. One revealed that volunteers who dedicated time to at least two organizations experienced 44% lower mortality rates than those who didn t impacting longevity more than religious involvement or social support.

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