Anyone who has ever been a volunteer knows that it feels good to help others, but researchers have found a less obvious benefit: volunteering can help reduce older adults' risk of high blood pressure.
The new study included more than 1,100 adults, aged 51 to 91, who were interviewed about their volunteering and had their blood pressure checked in 2006 and 2010. All of them had normal blood pressure at the time of the first interview.
The investigators found that participants who said during the first interview that they volunteered for at least 200 hours per year were 40 percent less likely to have high blood pressure four years later than those who did not volunteer.
It didn't matter what type of activity the volunteers performed. Only the amount of time spent helping others as a volunteer was associated with a reduced risk of high blood pressure, according to the study scheduled for publication in the journal Psychology and Aging.
The findings suggest that volunteering may be an effective medicine-free option to help prevent high blood pressure, which is a major contributor to cardiovascular disease -- the leading cause of death in the United States. High blood pressure, or hypertension, affects about 65 million Americans.
"Every day, we are learning more about how negative lifestyle factors like poor diet and lack of exercise increase hypertension risk," lead author Rodlescia Sneed, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, said in a university news release.
"Here, we wanted to determine if a positive lifestyle factor like volunteer work could actually reduce disease risk. And, the results give older adults an example of something that they can actively do to remain healthy and age successfully," Sneed explained.
"As people get older, social transitions like retirement, bereavement and the departure of children from the home often leave older adults with fewer natural opportunities for social interaction," Sneed noted. "Participating in volunteer activities may provide older adults with social connections that they might not have otherwise. There is strong evidence that having good social connections promotes healthy aging and reduces risk for a number of negative health outcomes."
While the study found an association between time spent volunteering and blood pressure levels, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.