Volunteering Lowers Hypertension Older Adults
June 14, 2013

Volunteer Work Lowers Hypertension Risk For Aging Adults

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

The social value of volunteering has been known for a long time, but a new study from Carnegie Mellon University shows that helping others can help your health as well.

The study reveals that older adults who volunteer for a minimum of 200 hours per year reduce their risk of hypertension, or high blood pressure, by 40 percent. According to the researchers, volunteer work may be an effective alternative to drugs for preventing the condition. These findings, published in the journal Psychology and Aging, have important implications because hypertension affects an estimated 65 million Americans and is a major contributor to cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the US.

"Everyday, we are learning more about how negative lifestyle factors like poor diet and lack of exercise increase hypertension risk," said Rodlescia S. Sneed, a PhD candidate in psychology in CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. "Here, we wanted to determine if a positive lifestyle factor like volunteer work could actually reduce disease risk. And, the results give older adults an example of something that they can actively do to remain healthy and age successfully."

Sneed and her colleague Sheldon Cohen studied 1,164 adults between the ages of 51 and 91 from across the nation. Each participant was interviewed twice: once in 2006 and again in 2010. All of the participants had normal blood pressure levels at the time of the first interview. At each interview, volunteerism, various social and psychological factors and blood pressure were all measured.

When the participants were re-evaluated in 2010, the researchers found those who reported at least 200 hours of volunteer work during the first interview were 40 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure than those who did not volunteer. What type of volunteer work the participants engaged in did not have an effect, only the amount of time spent volunteering.

"As people get older, social transitions like retirement, bereavement and the departure of children from the home often leave older adults with fewer natural opportunities for social interaction," Sneed said. "Participating in volunteer activities may provide older adults with social connections that they might not have otherwise. There is strong evidence that having good social connections promotes healthy aging and reduces risk for a number of negative health outcomes."