How volunteering reduces depression, cardiovascular disease & more

by Catherine Rickwood

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics nearly one-third of all Australians, that’s 4.4 million Australians, do voluntary work contributing 704.1 million hours of labour.  We know that remaining active and engaged in life is essential to living a long, happy, and healthy life.  However, who would have guessed that volunteering could provide these physical and mental benefits to how we age?

According to an international team of researchers it is possible that volunteering may protect against cognitive decline and dementia.  Why?

Existing evidence suggests that social, physical, and cognitive activity in post retirement protects against dementia.  In fact a Swedish study found that seniors who were involved with leisure activities that demanded moderate effort in one of these areas enjoyed a 47% reduction in the risk of dementia.  It has also been found that the quality of social interactions has an affect on the risk of dementia.

Because volunteering enables older people to be involved socially, physically, and cognitively in an activity with meaning and purpose it is potentially a way of helping to reduce the risk of dementia.  Volunteering also has an altruistic component and there is some evidence that altruistic acts are related to better physical and mental health in seniors.

Based on a review of 72 articles focused on formal volunteering by older adults this same international team of researchers found that volunteering is associated with these nine health benefits:

  1. Reduced symptoms of depression.  For seniors with dual sensory loss (vision and hearing), volunteering lessened depressive symptoms.
  2. Higher levels of happiness.
  3. Better maintenance of quality of life.
  4. Improved social support and social networks as volunteering enables senior volunteers to meet new people, make friends, and develop a sense of community.
  5. Greater resilience, particularly amongst people with more chronic health conditions.
  6. Feeling appreciated and needed.
  7. Increased physical activity in everyday life.
  8. Reduced mortality.
  9. Improvements in memory.

In another study it was found that people over 50 who volunteered for 200 hours or  more per year were less likely to develop hypertension, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular mortality, and stroke.

That’s 10 health benefits of volunteering.

Finally, a report by the United Health Group reveals that volunteers have lower stress levels and are more engaged and involved in taking care of their health.  The majority of the people included in their study also said that they felt healthier and happier.

My own experience of volunteering is positive.  I work at the cafe at The Wayside Chapel  inspired by Graham Long’s weekly newsletter which I’d been reading for 12 months prior to becoming a volunteer.  The volunteers I work with are interesting (I once worked with a butler!) and at the end of each shift I feel lighter and come away with a different perspective of my own world.  Friends and family have volunteered with their local Rotary Club, primary school, Sydney Writers Festival, and body corporate.

Where do you volunteer?  What do you enjoy?  Have you found any benefits in other parts of your life?  Let me know.  I’d enjoy hearing your story.


Anderson, N.D., Kroger, E., Dawson, R.D., Binns, M.A., Caspi, E., Damianakis, T., Wagner, L.M., Berstein, S., Cook, S.l., 2014, The Benefits Associated with Volunteering Among Seniors: A Critical Review and Recommendations for Future Research, Psychnological Bulletin, Vol. 140, No. 6, pp1505-1533
Sneed, R.l. & Cohen, S., 2013, A Prospective Study of Volunteerism and Hypertension Risk in Older Adults, Psychology and Aging, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp578-586



About the Author

Catherine Rickwood

An experienced researcher and business executive, Catherine's work is informed by academic knowledge and evidence to deliver practical actions with measurable outcomes. These combined skills create a powerful and useful ability to delve deep on issues, ask incisive questions, think laterally, and bring knowledge and insights to individuals, a team, and an organisation keen to engage with, and include the over 50's as a valuable part of their business strategy.

Catherine Rickwood is solutions-focussed, working with innovative organisations keen to improve customer and employee insights and empathy to increase their success in new markets, build loyalty, and increase innovation. She does this using a co-design process that engages employees and key stakeholders to create collaborative solutions. Contact Catherine to discover how her services can support your organisation to harness the changing demographic reality.

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