Volunteering might literally be good for your heart, a new study suggests.
Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found an association between volunteerism and decreased risk of high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart attack, stroke, heart failure and metabolic syndrome.
"Participating in volunteer activities may provide older adults with social connections that they might not have otherwise," Rodlescia S. Sneed, who is a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the university's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, said in a statement. "There is strong evidence that having good social connections promotes healthy aging and reduces risk for a number of negative health outcomes."
The study, published in the journal Psychology and Aging, included 1,164 adults between ages 51 and 91, who all had normal blood pressure levels at the beginning of the study in 2006. Researchers interviewed the study participants about their volunteerism and other factors at the start of the study, and then again at the end of the study in 2010. The participants also had their blood pressure taken at the end of the study.
They found that older adults who spent at least 200 hours a year volunteering seemed to have a 40 percent lower risk of high blood pressure by the end of the study, compared with those who didn't volunteer at all. Researchers didn't find that the type of volunteer work seemed to matter in lowering hypertension risk.
"Our findings suggest that volunteerism may be an effective, nonpharmacological intervention for reducing hypertension risk. Future research should more precisely explore possible biological and psychological mechanisms linking volunteerism to hypertension, such as neurohormonal changes that may result from the initiation of volunteer activities or changes in psychological stress, social connectedness, or self-esteem that may decrease disease risk," the researchers wrote in the study.
Older adults aren't the only ones who can benefit from volunteerism -- a study published earlier this year in the journal JAMA Pediatrics shows that volunteering is linked with lower inflammation, cholesterol and body mass index in high-schoolers, Everyday Health reported.
For more ways volunteering can better your health, click through the slideshow:
...Feel Like They Have More Time
In a 2012 study, researchers found that <a href="http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/giving-time-can-give-you-time.html">spending time on others made people feel more efficient</a>, and therefore like <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/22/volunteering-time_n_1672170.html">they didn't have to be in such a rush</a>, compared to spending time on themselves or just wasting time.
...Experience Less Depression
Volunteering time gives mental health a boost. A 2003 study found that, especially among adults over 65, <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12473312">volunteer work lowered depression levels</a>. And people facing harrowing circumstances, such as the death of a spouse or a sick child, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/28/health-benefits-of-volunteering-helping-others_n_909713.html#s316147&title=Helping_Others_Could">bounce back quicker from symptoms of depression</a> if they volunteer, iVillage reported.
...Feel Less Stressed
Nearly three-quarters of volunteers reported that their <a href="http://www.unitedhealthgroup.com/news/rel2010/UHC-VolunteerMatch-Survey-Fact-Sheet.pdf">good deeds lower stress levels</a> in a United Healthcare survey, and there's research to back them up. When giving back, the body naturally releases the feel-good hormone oxytocin, which will in turn <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/28/health-benefits-of-volunteering-helping-others_n_909713.html#s316119&title=Giving_Helps_You">reduce exposure to stress hormones</a>, iVillage reported, creating a sort of <a href="http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1150&context=lcp&sei-redir=1&referer=http%3A%2F%2Fscholar.google.com%2Fscholar_url%3Fhl%3Den%26q%3Dhttp%3A%2F%2Fscholarship.law.duke.edu%2Fcgi%2Fviewcontent.cgi%253Farticle%253D1150%2526context%253Dlcp%26sa%3DX%26scisig%3DAAGBfm39Ml0N_O2_dtEl3ikdcLYm3y2mnQ%26oi%3Dscholarr#search=%22http%3A%2F%2Fscholarship.law.duke.edu%2Fcgi%2Fviewcontent.cgi%3Farticle%3D1150%26context%3Dlcp%22">feel-good cycle</a>.
…Have Stronger Hearts
While you'll feel better all over thanks to oxytocin, the heart in particular benefits from that dip in stress. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/13/stress-awareness-day-relaxation-benefits_n_1424820.html">Stress ups risk for high blood pressure</a>, heart attacks and other heart problems, but volunteers actually show <a href="http://www.americorps.gov/about/newsroom/releases_detail.asp?tbl_pr_id=687">lower rates of heart disease</a>. And a Duke University study of people who had already experienced heart attacks found that the mental health boost they got from volunteering in turn <a href="http://www.nationalservice.gov/pdf/07_0506_hbr.pdf">kept their hearts healthy down the road</a>.
People who volunteer with the goal of helping others gain the added benefit of a <a href="http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2011/09/volunteering-health.aspx">longer life</a>, compared to people who volunteer for more self-centered reasons, according to a 2011 study. "It is reasonable for people to volunteer in part because of benefits to the self; however, our research implies that, ironically, should these benefits to the self become the main motive for volunteering, they may not see those benefits," the study's co-author, Andrea Fuhrel-Forbis, said in a statement.