Purdue finds health benefits in volunteerism

LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Behind a desk at St. Elizabeth East visitors’ entrance, Louise Force’s smile seems to glow.

Wearing a light blue-and-gold headband and a pink sparkly gemstone lanyard — from the hospital’s gift shop — she was eager to point visitors in the right direction, deliver flowers or chat with patients as she hands out mail.

“I like to go into the rooms as hostess,” the 86-year-old told the Journal & Courier (http://on.jconline.com/HbRLLN ). “Most of them want to talk longer than I have time.”

Her smile means a bubbly visitor for patients and their guests, but new research from Purdue University shows it’s also good for Force’s health.

Purdue researchers found that for adults 70 and older, volunteering — above other forms of social engagement — helps to give them a younger biological profile. That means they are healthier than people ages 58 to 69 who infrequently volunteer, according to the research.

The research used C-reactive protein levels, a marker of inflammation. The levels spike when a person has an infection, the flu, or as a person ages, said Seoyoun Kim, a Purdue doctoral candidate in sociology and gerontology who led the study. Higher CRP levels also can be a sign of cardiovascular and chronic disease.

Volunteers have lower CRP levels, meaning lower rates of age-related disease. Even if a person volunteers just several times a year, CRP levels were an average of 15 percent lower for volunteers over nonvolunteers, according to the study.

Using CRP levels makes this study based on an objective, physical marker instead of using subjective data from self-reported health or symptoms or physician-diagnosed diseases such as in previous studies, Kim said.

And Force is quick to agree with the findings.

“I believe that,” she said.

Force said volunteering, which keeps her busy, and eating right help to keep her healthy. Many older people didn’t purse volunteering and now aren’t healthy enough to do it.

About two years ago, Force’s husband, Tom, died. That’s when she decided she needed something to keep her active. She chose the hospital because it was the first place she thought of that would need volunteers.

Every Friday she’s there. She said visiting patients and working at the desk keep her busy — something she loves.

Amy Wood, volunteer associate at United Way of Greater Lafayette, said the research only confirms what she’s already seen happen, especially with Read to Succeed.

She said older volunteers find fulfillment in giving back to the community, plus it gives them a reason to get out.

The research, which focused on data from adults ages 70 to 85, adjusted for factors such as if the older adults had the physical health to volunteer. Kim said next is looking to see if there are cultural or regional differences and to see if volunteers have specific healthy habits that nonvolunteers lack.

Force also volunteers at the Open Door Clinic in Frankfort. Although she also exercises twice a week, plays golf, bowls and mows her own lawn, it’s really the volunteering that’s key for her health.

No other social engagement had a positive relationship with CRP.

What Kim didn’t find was a point where too much volunteering was bad for a person’s health in terms of CRP levels. In fact, those who volunteered multiple times a week had CRP levels about 25 percent lower than those who don’t volunteer.

She said most older adults lose an institutionalized role such as parent or employee, are empty-nesters and not working. So volunteering is a way to stay active and engaged, and have others rely on them again, Kim said.

“It really is something special about volunteering, it’s the act of giving and others caring about you,” she said.

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Journal & Courier.

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