doesn't just improve your mood, it also boosts brain-power
and strengthens your body
By Camille Noe Pagan
Suzanne Casey used to think that getting older would be, well,
boring. Her kids were out of the house, her husband had passed
away, and Casey was left wondering how the rest of her life
would unfold. "People always mentioned sitting around
playing bridge when you're of a certain age," says the
60-year-old Downingtown, PA, resident, laughing. But Casey's
view changed 4 years ago when her older sister encouraged
her to volunteer at a health clinic as a nurse's aide.
Within a few weeks of taking patient histories and reading
vital signs, she was hooked. "I felt like I'd found a
new purpose," she recalls. "I had always been interested
in a career in medicine, but when I was younger I couldn't
afford the schooling." Now, 40 years later, Casey is
pursuing her dream in more ways than one. She applied--and
was accepted--to nursing school, and she currently juggles
classes and volunteering 5 days a week.
"I wake up with a smile on my face because every day
is a new possibility," she says. What's more, her blood
pressure has gone down drastically, and her heart has never
Research suggests that the 65.4 million Americans who volunteer--42%
of whom are over age 55--are garnering similar feel-good benefits.
"Volunteering keeps people mentally active; it keeps
their weight in check, their heart healthy, and their memory
sharp," says Sharon Brangman, MD, chief of geriatrics
at the SUNY Upstate Medical University at Syracuse. "Essentially,
it's a drug-free way to keep you feeling young." Here
are all the ways helping others will help you.
Get in shape: "I have knee trouble, so traditional
workouts aren't an option," says Jane Strauss, 70, a
literacy and nursing home volunteer in Nelson County, VA.
"But when I'm volunteering, I'm always moving around.
It's exercise--I just never think of it that way." Whether
volunteers consider their activity a workout or not, they're
still reaping the rewards.
For instance, a new Johns Hopkins University study found that
adults age 59 and older doubled the amount of calories they
burned after volunteering in elementary school classrooms
at least 15 hours a week for a year. "This in turn will
reduce their risk of weight gain and obesity-related conditions,"
explains study author Erwin Tan, PhD. Notably, the benefits
didn't stop at school.
Study participants were better able to do housework, gardening,
and other everyday tasks. "The increase in activity also
translated into more muscle strength, which is crucial for
staying mobile into older age," Tan notes.
(Posted December 2006)Stay happy: After 8 years of
volunteering, seniors had significantly lower risk of depression
compared with those who never lent a hand, according to a
1,200-person study from the University of Texas at Austin
and Duke University. And earlier research from East Carolina
University noted that elderly volunteers reported more satisfaction
with their lives as a result of lending a hand.
"Since many retirees feel that they lack direction, volunteering
can give them a renewed sense of purpose," explains Charles
Garfield, PhD, a clinical professor of psychology at the University
of California, San Francisco. "Plus, you're helping others,
which can make you feel good about yourself and promote feelings
Build brainpower: Another Johns Hopkins study of volunteers
age 59 and older found that those who donated their time for
9 months were actually more likely to pursue brain-building
activities such as crosswords at home, in addition to their
And according to a 2002 report, the extra brain work can have
serious benefits: Older adults who engaged in these behaviors
had a 47% lower chance of developing Alzheimer's disease.
"Volunteering gives you the chance to use your brain
and try new things, which creates new neurological pathways,"
"This can slow down, and in some cases may prevent, memory
loss and other cognitive problems." Faye Miller, 68,
a museum and hospital volunteer in Columbia, SC, isn't surprised.
"I feel smarter," she says. Miller started volunteering
5 years ago. "It's intellectually stimulating. I'm around
interesting, engaging people, and I learn something new each
time I volunteer."
Feel younger--and live longer: "I've been volunteering
with a hospital for 7 years, and in that time, my arthritis
hasn't bothered me nearly as much as it used to," says
81-year-old Betty Familiare of Ocean City, NJ. "It's
hard to focus on aches and pains when you're busy." Researchers
found that 40% of baby boomers and seniors who volunteered
as primary school tutors or mentors decreased their use of
canes by 50% after just 8 months.
Brangman believes that charity work may help keep other ills
at bay, too: "Future research will focus on whether volunteering
can reduce your risk of chronic conditions aggravated by stress,
such as headaches and stomach problems." The results
may help explain why several studies, including a 2005 report
from Stanford University, have found that people who volunteer
live longer than those who don't.
Pick the perfect gig
Look for excitement: You're more likely to stick with
your commitment if it centers on something you enjoy or want
to learn more about, says Julia Siebel, PhD, director of volunteer
services at Children's Hospital of Orange County in California.
Step out of your comfort zone: "Organizations
don't necessarily need experts, they need people who really
want to help," Siebel says. "Think of volunteering
as a chance to pursue interests you never had time for before."
Search smart: Go to Volunteer Match, plug in your zip
code, and choose from 29 categories of interest, such as crisis
support and politics. Another option: Senior Corps, which
is for people 55-plus who are looking to become foster grandparents,
help homebound seniors, or share their skills through community
service, such as beautifying their neighborhood. You can also
contact local organizations directly, or call your city or
county office volunteer center.
Ask questions: Before committing, arrange an informational
meeting and ask the following questions:
1) What is the organization's mission?
2) What time commitment are you looking for?
3) What specific duties will I be handling?
4) Who will manage me?
5) How will I get feedback on my work?
Finally, ask to speak with other volunteers to get a sense
of how your time will be spent.
November 2011, Prevention | Updated November 2011