The Heart Values Volunteering

March 1, 2000 (San Diego) -- Lending a helping hand leads to a healthy heart, says a researcher who is studying a group of older Californians, including more than 600 who volunteer for an average of four hours a week.

Doug Oman, PhD, of the University of California, Berkeley, tells WebMD that the more one volunteers, the greater the benefit. For example, volunteers who spend time working at two or more organizations were 70% less likely to die from heart disease, including heart attacks and stroke, than were non-volunteers of the same age and sex.

These so-called "high volume" volunteers also cut their overall risk of death by 35%, says Oman, who presented his study at an American Heart Association conference here.

Oman says that scientists have known for "years that volunteers are different." Medical researchers refer to this as "volunteer bias," meaning that persons who volunteer to take part in medical studies may be more health-conscious than the general population, and so it may not be possible to generalize findings from studies using such volunteers. "So is this a nuisance variable," Oman asked the other scientists attending his lecture, "or an unrecognized public health opportunity?"

Oman says that volunteers do tend to be younger than 85 and better educated, and are more likely to be female -- all factors that have also been associated with healthy hearts. However, after taking these factors into consideration, volunteering was "still an independent marker for health," he says.

Additionally, the people who volunteered with at least one organization were more likely to have active social lives, be married, attend religious services, and "be joiners of organizations or clubs," Oman says. All of these factors are also associated with good health, but again, Oman says that when he adjusted for these factors, "volunteerism still stood out."

He says that he didn't ask the study subjects about "the type of volunteer work, and it may be that certain types of work are healthier than other types, but we don't know. That is an area that will require further study."

All of the subjects in the study lived in Marin County, Calif., a wealthy area surrounding San Francisco. All the subjects were enrolled in 1990 and followed for five years, he says.

Vital Information:

  • Researchers report that people who volunteer their time at two or more organizations were 70% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease than those the same age and sex who don't volunteer. These same volunteers, overall, cut their risk of death by 35%.
  • Researchers still need to tease out why volunteers seem to be healthier people, on average. Even though the study accounted for the health advantages that volunteers have (such as being female, being better educated, and being under age 85), they still edge out their non-volunteering peers.
  • In the study group, the subjects who volunteered with at least one organization had other healthy attributes, such as an active social life, a spouse, regular attendance at religious services, and personalities that make them want to get involved.