Although numerous studies have shown that volunteering is linked with better mental health, physical health and health behaviors, new research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health went one step further and asked: are volunteers more likely to practice preventive healthcare, go on fewer doctor visits and spend fewer nights in the hospital?
The “Volunteering is prospectively associated with health care use among older adults” report found that volunteers are more likely to engage in preventive health care than non-volunteers. For example, volunteers were 30% more likely to receive flu shots and 47% more likely to receive cholesterol tests. While volunteering was not associated with frequency of doctor visits, the research did find that volunteers spent 38% fewer nights in the hospital. With a U.S. population that is rapidly aging, these findings may open the door to new ways to advance preventive health care, lower health care costs and improve the health of older adults.
And why might volunteering and the use of preventive health care be linked? The answers are likely a mix of psychological, social, and physiological factors. Eric Kim, who led the study, suggests that volunteering “increases a sense of purpose in life, which has been seen to be a driving factor for a lot of positive health outcomes. Volunteering also increases social connections, which have been linked to better health for a wide range of reasons. For example, people can share and receive information about things like where to buy healthy foods at the best prices or remind one another of which health screenings to get. People can also provide and receive instrumental support, such as sharing resources like rides to medical appointments. Social networks also provide emotional and psychological support, and that leads to better health.”
The bottom line? Volunteering may be an ideal low-cost strategy to help improve health among older adults. Learn more about volunteering and health through these links: