Regular volunteering maintains the health of older adults

Volunteering can feel great and make good things happen. Now we know it promotes your health too.

two United Way volunteers cooking on a grill in red aprons
Pixabay
  • A new study has confirmed that volunteering is good for your health.
  • The researchers found that volunteering two hours a week reduced the risk of death in older adults.
  • The test subjects also reported a greater sense of meaning, more optimism, and got more exercise.

A new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine has confirmed that volunteering in your golden years is fantastic for your health. It goes further than previous studies and examines general well-being and specific dimensions of health to determine what volunteering can and cannot fix.

Volunteering is great for you. Who knew?

In line with previous studies, the researchers found that adults over 50 who volunteer at least 100 hours a year – a mere two hours a week – enjoyed a variety of mental health benefits.

People who volunteered at this level reported higher levels of optimism, positive affect, and a sense of meaning in their lives. They also reported fewer cases of depressive symptoms and loneliness. The data also showed these individuals had a lower risk of death or physically limiting impairments throughout the study.

Those who volunteered less saw reduced variations of these benefits, if any.

However, volunteering did not have much of an effect when it came to a variety of specific physical health outcomes including stroke, heart disease, arthritis, obesity, cognitive impairment, or chronic pain. While it was associated with more physical exercise, it did not affect rates of binge drinking, smoking, or sleep problems.

Frequent volunteers also reported little difference from non-volunteers on psychosocial outcomes such as life satisfaction, financial mastery, or depression.

How is this different from previous studies?

This study was carried out, in part, to correct for the limitations of previous studies.

First of all, this study looked into reports on the well-being of a large number of nationally representative older adults. Many previous studies focused on younger people, small sample sizes, or groups that were not reflective of the general senior population. This study had a sample size of around 13,000 adults.

The researchers also paid attention to these people longer than previous efforts did. The data was collected three times over the course of eight years. Previous studies often stopped at the four-year mark. Those earlier studies also often failed to look closely enough to determine if the effect was causal, rather than correlational, for a variety of reasons. This time around, the study was structured to explicitly examine which of the previously noted health benefits were caused by time spent volunteering.

Should we all be volunteering all the time then?

The study found that the health benefits at 200+ hours of volunteering per year, about four hours a week, were very similar to the benefits of 100 hours per year. This is in line with previous studies suggesting that the 100-hour mark is a "threshold" point where the health benefits of volunteering fully manifest.

There are limits to this study that must be considered. Most of the data were self-reported and subject to self-report bias. It also focused purely on time spent volunteering and did not investigate the nature of that volunteer work. The authors suggest that future studies should look into how the quality of volunteer time, the motivations for volunteering, the kind of work being done, and other factors influence the results.

Despite these limits, the authors are enthusiastic about the potential applications of these findings.

They suggest that "The growing older adult population possesses a vast array of skills and experiences that can be leveraged for the greater good of society via volunteering. With further research, policies and interventions aimed at encouraging more volunteering it might be an innovative way of simultaneously enhancing society and fostering a trajectory of healthy aging (on some indicators) in the large and rapidly growing population of older adults." They also suggest that one day doctors might suggest volunteering as a means to improve health outcomes.

That might be an excellent initiative to follow up on after this pandemic subsides. When that day comes, you can check out this list of available spots for volunteering. Options for volunteering virtually are also available.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
She was walking down the forest path with a roll of white cloth in her hands. It was trailing behind her like a long veil.
Keep reading Show less

NASA finds water on sunlit moon surface for first time

Water may be far more abundant on the lunar surface than previously thought.

Lunar surface

Credit: Helen_f via AdobeStock
Surprising Science
  • Scientists have long thought that water exists on the lunar surface, but it wasn't until 2018 that ice was first discovered on the moon.
  • A study published Monday used NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy to confirm the presence of molecular water..
  • A second study suggests that shadowy regions on the lunar surface may also contain more ice than previously thought.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast