A Giving Heart: How Helping Behaviors Affect Cardiovascular Risk in Men & Women

Engaging in helping behaviors has been suggested to benefit the giver as well as the recipient. A recent study looked at what impact three types of helping behaviors may have on cardiovascular events such as heart attacks or strokes. The study also examined the impact of gender on this relationship as there are differences in social roles for men and women surrounding helping behaviors and caregiving.

The three helping behaviors examined were formal volunteering with an organization, informal helping (time spent helping friends, neighbors, or relatives who did not live with you), and caregiving. In addition to helping behaviors, the researchers statistically controlled for other cardiovascular risk factors such as smoking, physical activity, race, and marital status. For women, even when risk factors were controlled for, formal volunteering was significantly associated with lower risk of cardiovascular events. Formal volunteering was not a significant factor for men. For informal helping, this pattern was reversed. Here, men showed statistically significant reductions in cardiovascular risk after adjusting for other risk factors, while women did not. There was no significant relationship between caregiving and cardiovascular events for either women or men.

The researchers suggest this pattern may relate to women’s gender roles and the expectations for women to offer informal helping, while for men such help is less expected. Volunteering is viewed as less of an expected obligation for women, which makes it more of a freely given activity than part of a social norm. However, why volunteering was not significant for men remains unclear.

As for the other risk factors, the study found that for both men and women of older age, higher numbers of health conditions and smoking were associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease. For women, but not men, obesity was also associated with greater cardiovascular risk. Lastly, for both sexes, greater physical activity was associated with lower risk of a cardiovascular event.



Burr JA, Han S, Hyo JL, et al. Health benefits associated with three helping behaviors: evidence for incident cardiovascular disease. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B (2018); Vol. 73(3): 492–500. 

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