Loneliness is a serious medical problem for many older adults;
previous research links it to declines in physical and mental health
as well as premature death, researchers note in the Journals of
Gerontology: Social Sciences. Because strong marriages, friendships
and social networks can keep loneliness at bay, researchers wanted
to see if becoming more involved in the community through volunteer
work might make loneliness less common for an especially vulnerable
group: recent widows.
They found, as expected, that feelings of loneliness were much more
intense among recent widows than married people. But the recent
widows who started volunteering at least two hours a week developed
lower levels of loneliness on par with married people who spend
similar amounts of time giving back to their communities.
This offers fresh insight into “how much of a 'dose’ of volunteering
might be needed to offset loneliness at widowhood,” said lead study
author Dawn Carr of the Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy
at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
“We do not know exactly how volunteering `gets under our skin,’ but
there is some speculation that it is beneficial because it tends to
require us to use our mind, it requires us to be more physically
active, and it almost always requires us to interact with others,”
Carr said by email.
For the study, researchers examined data collected from 2006 to 2014
on 5,882 adults aged 51 and older. All of the participants were
married at the start of the study, but 667 had become widows by the
People widowed during the study were more likely to be women, black,
older, sicker, depressed, and experiencing cognitive decline. They
were also more likely to have had a spouse who was disabled or
suffering from memory loss.
At the start of the study, roughly half of the participants did some
volunteer work. People were more likely to start volunteering during
the study if they became widows than if they remained married, and
widows were also more likely to devote lots of hours to volunteer
During the study, about 1.5 percent of the participants started
volunteering at least 100 hours a year, and another 6.3 percent
began volunteering, but less often.
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To assess loneliness, researchers examined data from questionnaires
that asked how often people felt isolated, left out, or that they
One limitation is the possibility that less lonely people might be
more apt to venture out to volunteer, rather than volunteering being
responsible for any reduction in loneliness, the authors note.
Even so, the findings offer fresh evidence of the health benefits of
regular social interactions, said Dr. Guohua Li, director of the
Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia University
in New York City.
“Volunteering in particular is an activity that facilitates older
adults’ social engagement and the formation of meaningful
relationships with others,” Li, who wasn’t involved in the study,
said by email. “Volunteering may also increase older persons’
self-esteem and give them a sense of community, decreasing their
feelings of loneliness after the loss of a spouse.”
To get these benefits from volunteering, though, people need to keep
showing up, said Dr. Carla Perissinotto, a researcher at the
University of California, San Francisco, who wasn’t involved in the
“For some people, volunteering regularly can actually help decrease
feelings of loneliness and this is important because loneliness is
linked to many health outcomes such as increased risk of heart
disease, dementia, functional decline and death,” Perissinotto said
“But the volunteering has to be regular - not just twice a year - to
have the benefit,” Perissinotto added. “Similarly to exercise, you
need to have a certain amount on a weekly basis for it to be
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/2tQf8bc Journals of Gerontology: Social
Sciences, online July 8, 2017.
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