Seniors with Physical Limitations Live Longer by Volunteering

in Science & Tech by

As the youngest members of the baby boom generation approach 65 years old, a new study by the Arizona State University will help ensure that even the onset of physical limitations doesn’t need to affect their mortality.

The University study discovered that older adults with physical functional limitations – such as cooking food, carrying groceries, or driving a car – are especially able to benefit by helping others.

This study is one of many dedicated to studying and improving the health and lifestyle of senior citizens, particularly important as the population in most developed countries is increasingly older with the potential to strain already suffering government health care budgets.

Related to volunteerism – as it requires a certain level of mobility by elderly participants – research is taking place at Queen’s University in Kingston and collaborating countries, which recently $1.5 million in funding to lead a study to explore individual and community factors that hinder seniors from maintaining physically activity.

Volunteering is known to instill a sense of community and health benefits to people who do the volunteering, and this new research addressed the impact on mortality for older adults both with and without functional limitations.

Arizona State University professor of psychology Morris Okun said, “As functional limitations increase, the risk of dying increases, but not among those who volunteered. By helping other people, you are actually helping yourself.”

Although lead author of the report, entitled “Does volunteering moderate the relation between functional limitations and mortality?”, Okun and his collaborators obtained their findings from secondary data analysis of a longitudinal study conducted by co-author Karen Rook of the University of California-Irvine.

Other researchers included Kristin August, also of UofC, and Jason Newsom of Portland State University. Their conclusions have been published in the November 2010 issue of Social Science & Medicine.

The study consisted of 916 non-institutionalized adults 65 years old and older who lived in the continental U.S. Data, and mortality data was attained six years later from the National Death Index.

Researchers concentrated on the relationship between functional limitations, volunteering, and mortality.

According to Morris Orkin, the group found that “people with functional limitations are benefiting more from volunteering in terms of longevity than the people who are free of functional limitations,” Okun said. “It is also true that people with functional limitations are less likely to volunteer, so it is paradoxical that those who would benefit the most from volunteering, also are less likely to volunteer.”

Okun said the researchers controlled for many variables and the relationship between functional limitations, volunteering and mortality remained.

“There appears to be something unique happening in terms of how functional limitations and volunteering work together to influence mortality,” said Okun, who confirmed that researchers controlled for many variables that could have otherwise influenced the results.

While the authors could not identify a physiological reason for this effect, they believe that it could be that volunteering older people simply feel more useful.

“People who have the beginning of a set of functional limitations are the kinds of people who are experiencing some diminished sense of usefulness. We know that a sense of usefulness is a predictor of mortality in older people,” Okun said.

“The Boomers are not going to be envelope lickers,” he added. “They are looking for something more rewarding than that. We need to think about meaningful ways to engage them as part of the volunteer labor force.”


Photo by ChiBart