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4 Health Benefits of Volunteering

4 Health Benefits of Volunteering

Al Waller: Volunteering can help individuals make a positive impact on the world and the lives of others. According to a survey conducted by nonprofit Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies, one in four workers (24 percent) dream of spending their retirement doing volunteer work. Volunteering is not only a rewarding way to give back to our communities, but it can also benefit our health, especially as we age.

Welcome to ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & WealthSM. I'm your host, Al Waller. Joining me today is Mihaela Vincze, public health expert, for nonprofit Transamerica Institute®, as we explore four health benefits of volunteering and the ways it can contribute to healthy aging.

It’s nice to have you back, Mihaela.

Mihaela Vincze: Hi, Al. It’s great to be back!

Al Waller: As people age, it’s important for them to maintain physical, mental, and social health. How can volunteering help people achieve this?

Mihaela Vincze: Volunteering can provide a sense of purpose. When we volunteer, we offer our time and skills to help others, which can be really fulfilling. Volunteering also allows us to contribute to a cause that we care about. Individuals with a greater sense of purpose maintain better cognitive function and have lower dementia risk, according to a study published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Having a sense of purpose can also help us cope with setbacks and life’s challenges, as a sense of purpose can help build resilience and allow us to persevere through difficult times.

Al Waller: I’m sure having healthy coping skills has a positive impact on healthy aging. It’s incredible to think of the profound effects of having that sense of purpose. What else do you have for us in terms of the positive effects volunteering may have on health?

Mihaela Vincze: Volunteering can reduce social isolation. Volunteering can enhance a sense of community, belonging, and can reduce social isolation in many ways. For starters, it can support our ability to connect with others, who share similar values and interests. As we get older, we may have less opportunities to socialize, which can make it trickier to feel comfortable socially. Volunteering can increase our social skills, since it often involves working with others and building relationships. It can expose us to new experiences and perspectives, which can ultimately broaden our worldview, as well as equip us with the ability to connect to the world around us.

A 2021 study published in Humanities & Social Sciences Communications, found that perceived social isolation was associated with poor life satisfaction, social and life domains, as well as work-related stress and lower trust of institutions, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Al Waller: Social support and engagement can be very beneficial for our health. Volunteering also is a great way to meet new people and make new connections.

To that point (and I might have shared this before), I was doing some volunteer work in my community about five years ago when I ran into a guy I hadn’t seen for a number of years.

Long story short, we ultimately had lunch and reminisced about our days as DJs on college radio. Next thing I know – his station, WYPR, was looking for a host to come join a program called….wait for it: ….”ClearPath Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth.” And the rest, as they say is history!

So yes, volunteering can be a great way to meet or get reacquainted with people, but it can also lead to making some valuable connections as I’ve just noted.

Mihaela Vincze: I had no idea that’s how WYPR found you.

Al Waller: What other health benefits of volunteering would you like to share?

Mihaela Vincze: Volunteering can improve cognitive function. Volunteering can provide mental stimulation by providing opportunities for us to build new skills, as well as solve problems and engage in activities that require mental effort. This can keep the brain active and reduce cognitive decline, which is especially important as we age.

A study published in the Journals of Gerontology found that formal volunteering was associated with higher levels of cognitive functioning over time, especially with aspects of cognitive functioning related to working memory and processing. Keep in mind that these positive effects on cognition will depend on the individual and the type of volunteering activity they participate in.

Al Waller: Yes, for example, if you volunteer at a library, you may learn new research skills or gain knowledge about a particular subject—which I am sure requires a lot of brain power and can be a great way to keep your brain engaged and active. How else can volunteering improve our health?

Mihaela Vincze: Volunteering can reduce the risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease and dementia.

Heart Disease. Volunteering can provide opportunities for physical activity, including walking or lifting, which can improve your cardiovascular health. A study published in The Gerontologist found that there is a correlation between volunteering and a lower likelihood for having five risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease. Volunteering can also relieve stress, by helping us positively impact our communities. Stress can negatively affect our heart health.

Dementia. Increased mental stimulation can reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia, since we learn new skills, solve problems, and keep our brains active. A five-year longitudinal study published in PLoS One compared volunteering and non-volunteering retired older adults. The study found that those who volunteered later in life had lower self-reported cognitive complaints and a lower risk for dementia, compared to their non-volunteering counterparts. Please note that volunteering alone will not prevent dementia, and individuals should engage in other health-promoting behaviors such as exercise, healthy eating, and mental activities.

Al Waller: It’s encouraging to think that volunteering can help our hearts and minds. Volunteering has an impact on so many parts of our health – it can provide opportunities for physical activity, it can provide social support, a sense of purpose, and may prevent some chronic conditions. That’s incredible. What should our listeners consider when deciding on their next volunteer venture?

Mihaela Vincze: It’s important to be intentional when selecting the type of volunteer roles you apply for, as volunteering can potentially help you build the skills you need for your chosen career path—or allow you to hone in on your passions. In addition to health benefits, volunteering can also be a great way to learn new skills and build your resume. Volunteering can show potential employers that you are committed to making a positive impact in the world and that you are willing to put in hard work to achieve your goals.

Al Waller: Volunteering can be a valuable addition to our resumes, helping you stand out to potential employers. What are some tips and resources for those who are interested in volunteering but don’t know where to start?

Mihaela Vincze: Volunteers of all ages can check out VolunteerMatch for a broad range of volunteer opportunities. If you’re part of a church or faith-based organization, you may also find a plethora of volunteer opportunities there. AARP also has volunteer opportunities.

Al Waller: Thanks again, Mihaela. Through our discussion of volunteering, I hope that more people get involved in the communities and reap the benefits of giving back. Join us in this important conversation and help spread the message that volunteering is not only good for the community, but also good for your health.

If you’d like to check out any of the source materials mentioned today, visit transamericainstitute.org/podcast to review the episode’s transcript.

If you have comments, feedback, or topic ideas, please reach out to [email protected]. Don’t forget to hit that subscribe button so that you don’t miss an episode of ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth.

Until the next time, I’m your host Al Waller. Stay safe, be well and thanks for listening.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is brought to you by Transamerica Institute, a nonprofit private foundation dedicated to identifying, researching, and educating the public about health and wellness, employment, financial literacy, longevity, and retirement.

You can find our weekly podcast on WYPR’s website and mobile app, wherever you get your podcasts, and at transamericainstitute.org/podcast.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is produced by the Transamerica Institute with assistance from WYPR.

The information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as insurance, securities, ERISA, tax, investment, legal, medical, or financial advice or guidance.

Al Waller is a long-time Baltimore native and employment expert with a 30-year career in leading and advising locally and globally based corporations on matters including: Talent Acquisition and Retention, Employee Relations, Training and Development.
Mihaela Vincze is a public health expert and experienced health care educator. Serving as Transamerica Institute’s health care content developer, she shares insights on health and wellness on ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health and WealthSM. Mihaela earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in public health at California State University, Northridge.