In an innovative study, researchers examined how various types of social engagement and participation influence older adults’ risk of cardiovascular disease.
The researchers hypothesized that for older adults, greater involvement in social groups or helping others is related to lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and that older adults who volunteer or informally help others will have lower risk of cardiovascular disease than their peers who only participate in social or religious groups.
To test this hypothesis, they examined data from the 2006, 2008, and 2010 waves of the Health and Retirement Study. They compared cardiovascular disease diagnosis/ mortality and non- cardiovascular-disease related mortality across waves, with measures of volunteering, informal helping, religious service attendance, and social group attendance. They also examined if health behaviors (physical activity, smoking, and alcohol consumption) mediate the relationship between cardiovascular disease and social activity.
Results mostly confirmed the hypothesis. Older adults who volunteered were less likely to be diagnosed with cardiovascular disease than those who did not volunteer, while religious service attendance, social group attendance, and informal helping were not related to cardiovascular disease risk. This was true after adjusting for age, gender, ethnicity, education, and income. Older adults who volunteered for 100 hours or more per year had a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease diagnosis, compared to those who did not volunteer. Older adults who did not volunteer, did not participate in informal helping, or did not attend religious service were had a significantly higher risk of non- cardiovascular-disease mortality. And health behaviors mediated these relationships.
This confirms the unique benefit volunteering can have on one’s health. The reduction in cardiovascular disease risk from volunteering went beyond participation in social and religious groups, and informal helping. While participation in these activities had an impact on mortality, only volunteering reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. This is a behavior anyone can engage in, so it may be worth creating and promoting more opportunities for older adults to volunteer.
Han SH, Tavares JL, Evans M, et al. Social activities, incident cardiovascular disease, and mortality: Health behaviors mediation. Journal of Aging and Health (2017); 29(2): 268–288.