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Op/ed: The impressive health benefits of volunteering


By Jean-Luc Bourdon on August 30, 2013

When I recently applied for long-term care insurance, I was surprised to be asked if I volunteer. Because I answered that I do, the insurance company asked how many hours a week I volunteer. At that point, I was very intrigued to know why it matters. Insurance companies and their actuaries don’t ask questions out of curiosity.

As it turns out, volunteering not only makes a positive difference for others, it also has impressive benefits for volunteers themselves. Studies show volunteering strongly lowers mortality rates and increases functional ability later in life. Therefore, volunteering can significantly help maintain our independence as we face age-related health challenges.

Research shows volunteering improves psychological factors which in turn benefit our physical and mental health. For instance, volunteering increases our sense of purpose, life satisfaction, and provides a social support network that alleviates stress. To a lesser degree, volunteering also enhances physical activity which can slow or reverse physical decline.

Overall, the health benefits are significant. A study found that, over a five-year period, seniors who volunteered had a 44 percent lower mortality than non-volunteers. Another study showed that a small amount of volunteering lowered the risk of hypertension, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, renal failure, and cognitive impairment. Several studies even looked at the effect of volunteering on specific chronic or serious illness and found benefits that could not be achieved through medical care. For example, individuals suffering from chronic pain lowered their level of pain, disability and depression by volunteering for others who also suffered from chronic pain.

Seniors get the most health benefits, particularly if they have little informal social interaction. Evidence also shows that older adults who volunteered earlier in life are less likely to suffer from ill health. A study explained that those who had volunteered were more likely to occupy multiple roles in later years, indicating greater social integration. Therefore, volunteering now could be a potent way to prevent poor health as we age. Think of it as preventive care.

Because of the high-cost of long-term medical care, such health benefits imply a substantial financial benefit. Consider that, in the Santa Barbara area, the median cost for home health-aide is about $58,000 per year (based on 44 hours per week), according to the Genworth 2013 Cost of Care Survey. It is $44,400 per year for one bedroom in an assisted living facility and about $108,000 per year for a private room in a nursing home.

So, this explains why my long-term care insurer asked if I volunteer. But, why did they ask how many hours I volunteer? Some research indicates that volunteering offers little health benefits if it involves less than two hours a week, and doesn’t provide any additional health benefits for volunteering more than that. Therefore, there would be a threshold to reach for involvement to be beneficial. However, other studies found lower levels of involvements are still beneficial. What seems clear is that volunteering can meaningfully add years to our life and life to our years.

• Jean-Luc Bourdon is a certified public accountant and a a wealth advisor and principal with BrightPath Wealth Planning, LLC in Santa Barbara, Camarillo and Westlake Village. Contact him at jeanluc@brightpathwealth.com.