Inflammation is just a disease thing, right? And aren’t productive activities just ways that one may choose to spend one’s time? On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be any relationship between the two. However, new research looks into whether four different types of productive activity (employment, volunteering, attending meetings, and caregiving) may play a role in protecting individuals from the chronic inflammation that has been associated with an increased risk of hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
Recently, medical professionals have been paying increased attention to the negative health impact of chronic, low-grade, body-wide inflammation. This kind of inflammation may not be noticeable to an individual who has it, but it has been linked to risk of heart attack, stroke, and mortality. Such inflammation has been shown to be influenced by factors such as smoking, physical activity, and obesity. More surprisingly, social factors have also been related to inflammation as well. Maintaining ties to a larger community and having close, supportive relationships have both been related to having lower chronic inflammation.
As for productive activities, the most common ones studied are paid employment and volunteering. Considerable research has shown that such productive activity has benefits for older adults’ health. For example, volunteering has been associated with aspects of well-being such as fewer depressive symptoms, better self-rated health, and less hypertension. One suggestion as to why these effects are observed is that productive activity is thought to provide meaningful social roles, which have a positive impact on well-being. This meaning could take the form of status, influence, or emotional gratification.
This study looked at a nationally representative group of 1,790 community-dwelling adults in the United States from age 57 to 85. These adults each provided a blood sample so that the researchers could measure the level of the CRP molecules that have been associated with inflammation. They were also surveyed about their participation in four different productive activities: employment, volunteering, attending meetings, and caregiving. The survey also asked about the frequency of participation in a productive activity, as well as demographic information and lifestyle factors such as physical activity and smoking.
Overall, the largest proportion of participants (69 percent) engaged in the productive activity of meeting attendance, with volunteering a close second at 63 percent. Only 32 percent were employed and 18 percent were engaged in caregiving activities. As for the concentration of the CRP molecule associated with inflammation, women and African American participants had higher than average levels overall, as did smokers and obese individuals. On the other hand, individuals with higher levels of education and with greater levels of physical activity had lower average levels of CRP overall.
When the researchers looked at the frequency with which individuals engaged in productive activity, only volunteering had a statistically significant association with lower levels of inflammation. When the impact of volunteering was taken into account, the researchers did not find any relationship between the number of different roles that participants engaged in and inflammation. The researchers also looked at the possibility that individuals could be overloaded by high levels of engagement in multiple roles, but they found no evidence of this. Lastly, they looked at whether the benefits of volunteering are stronger in individuals over 70 years of age. Among those with low levels of volunteering, there were no age-related differences in CRP inflammation levels. However, for individuals involved in frequent volunteering, those 70 and better had significantly lower levels of inflammation than those between 58 and 69, suggesting that volunteering for individuals over 70 may have more benefits on inflammation than at younger ages.
The authors suggest a few different ways that productive activities may lower inflammation. One possibility is that more productive individuals have healthier responses to challenges or stressors. Another suggestion is that certain not-yet-determined roles or activities that are a part of productive activity may be responsible for the association with lower inflammation. A third suggestion is that the level of involvement in a productive activity could play a part in the lower inflammation observed. Supporting that idea is research that the number of roles and amount of time spent in each role are significant predictors of happiness.
It should be noted that previous research also suggests that some the benefits associated with volunteering or other productive activities may depend on an individual’s degree of engagement in such roles (See “How Levels of Engagement Work, Volunteering & Caregiving Affect Well-Being.”) But this study provides additional evidence that certain types of social activity can also be beneficial to your physical health, and in this case it is important to recognize how volunteering is associated with better health, especially for individuals over 70.
This also suggests to the senior living sector that encouraging older adults to volunteer and providing a range of volunteer opportunities could provide important benefits to the older adults being served.
Kim S and Ferraro KF. Do productive activities reduce inflammation in later life? Multiple roles, frequency of activities, and C-Reactive Protein. The Gerontologist (2014); 54(5): 830–839.