ATLANTA—Older adults can reduce early level physical disability by volunteering 100 hours per year, which is about two hours per week, according to a recent study.
The population of older adults in the United States is steadily increasing, and a growing number of these individuals are highly sedentary and experiencing an accelerated onset of disability. Public health efforts to reduce the start and progression of disability in older adults have produced few benefits, so new strategies are needed to effectively decrease the number of years older people spend disabled.
This study was designed to determine if beginning to volunteer might serve as a health intervention that delays the onset of physical disability in older adults. The study also investigated whether the intensity of volunteering or a person’s gender has an effect on physical health. The findings are published in The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences.
“We looked at how beginning a new volunteer role impacted people’s functional limitations, which is early level disability,” said Dr. Ben Lennox Kail, assistant professor of sociology at Georgia State University. “We found that, in general, people who volunteered at less than 100 hours per year, which is less than two hours per week, had 34 percent less decline than non-volunteers. For people who volunteered two hours per week, or 100 hours per year, that nearly doubles to 63 percent less physical decline. This is a large mitigation of functional limitations among people who begin a new volunteer activity of 100-plus hours per year.
“Then we broke it down by gender, and it becomes more interesting here. We find that for women, volunteering at both the lower level and higher level has about the same effect. It is associated with 38 and 39 percent less decline relative to non-volunteers. For men, the low level is comparable to women. It’s associated with 37 percent less decline. But the pretty astonishing part is that at two hours per week, 100 hours per year, men experience 105 percent less decline, which actually means an improvement. Most people as they get older, they accumulate more of these functional limitations or greater disability. But for men who begin new volunteering, they actually improve their overall physical health.”
The study used data from a sample of 7,135 older adults, ages 51 and older, in the United States who participated in the Health and Retirement Study, which collected information every two years for 16 years. The adults were not volunteering when they were initially surveyed, but either started volunteering later or remained a non-volunteer. They were asked if they had spent any time in the past 12 months doing volunteer work for a religious, educational, health-related or other charitable organization and how many hours they spent doing volunteer work.
The results from the study suggest that starting new volunteer work later in life is related to decreased progression of physical disability. For women, volunteering at low and high levels seems to be equally beneficial, but for men, only volunteering at higher levels (two or more hours per week) appears to have the most advantageous effects on physical health.
“This overall lends credence to this notion that beginning new productive social activities, in this case in the form of volunteering, among an older population can help slow the decline associated with aging. It’s an effective intervention,” Kail said.
Co-authors of the study include Dr. Dawn C. Carr of Florida State University and Dr. John W. Rowe of Columbia University.
To read the study, visit https://academic.oup.com/psychsocgerontology/article/73/3/511/4049587?searchresult=1.
Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology
Affiliate Faculty Member, Gerontology Institute
Dr. Kail’s research focuses on the relationships between public and private benefits, work, unpaid work, and health throughout the life course. Recent publications have focused on the relationships between insurance benefits and postretirement employment, and the relationship between postretirement employment and unpaid productive activities after leaving full time work.