Volunteering for Research: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

December 22, 2023

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The holidays are a time for giving. We give gifts, hugs, support, unsolicited advice, and time. Of those, time can make the most significant difference to society at large if we provide it in the form of volunteering. Over 1 in 4 Americans volunteer their time. To count as volunteering, one has to freely choose to do the activity (no getting volun-told) and it should be altruistic. There are different categories of volunteering broken down into self-oriented and other-oriented. Self-oriented volunteering involves some kind of personal benefit, like potential career advancement. Other-oriented volunteering is instead focused on helping others in areas like health, education, religious groups, and youth development. Regardless of the category, any volunteering is good volunteering. Anyone who volunteers knows that besides helping others, it also gives you a warm fuzzy feeling inside, but did you know that fuzzy feeling might help keep you alive?

Before we get into studies and possible health benefits, we must cover caveats. Studying the effects of volunteering on the body and brain is hard. You literally can’t force people to volunteer, so most of our information comes from observational studies. This is where researchers will follow people over time and compare those who volunteer to those who don’t. This can give us some great data, but it’s hard to know if volunteering is the cause or the effect. A senior citizen with a painful condition who works 60 hours a week will probably volunteer less than a healthy retiree (clinical research tries to mitigate these needs by providing compensation for time and travel to help make volunteering easier). Good studies therefore compare people with similar health, economic, and other factors in an attempt to isolate any effects volunteering has.

With that in mind, volunteering seems to be associated with great outcomes. It appears to be associated with improvements in depression and life satisfaction. In a 14-year study of those above 60, a 2016 study found a reduced risk of cognitive decline due to volunteering. Most amazingly, a 2013 meta-analysis, which looked at the results of 40 other studies, found a 22% reduction in death! Even when taken with a McDonald’s french fry of salt, these results are very promising. But what’s going on to make this happen? There are no definite answers, but three suspected ones:

  • Physical activity: volunteering usually requires people to get up and move. This is particularly helpful for those whose social networks are shrinking
  • Social interaction: volunteering uses the social parts of your brain. Increasing these has been shown to increase survivability by up to 50%
  • Prosocial behavior: volunteering increases our social networks, which act as reinforcement systems for health

How can we gain these benefits? By volunteering, of course! Food banks, schools, refugee services, and youth development programs can always use volunteers. The internet is a great place to look for opportunities to grow your social networks and help others. Clinical research is another great way to volunteer. One of the biggest draws for clinical research volunteers is knowing that the medicines they help research can help future generations. Today’s trials can help pave the way for medications and procedures that may persist into the future. This holiday season, if you can, volunteer and give the gift that keeps on giving.

Staff Writer / Editor Benton Lowey-Ball, BS, BFA

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Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS medicine, 7(7), e1000316. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316

Infurna, F. J., Okun, M. A., & Grimm, K. J. (2016). Volunteering is associated with lower risk of cognitive impairment. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 64(11), 2263-2269. https://doi.org/10.1111/jgs.14398

Jenkinson, C. E., Dickens, A. P., Jones, K., Thompson-Coon, J., Taylor, R. S., Rogers, M., … & Richards, S. H. (2013). Is volunteering a public health intervention? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the health and survival of volunteers. BMC public health, 13(1), 1-10. https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2458-13-773?TB_iframe=true

Kwon, S. J., van Hoorn, J., Do, K. T., Burroughs, M., & Telzer, E. H. (2023). Neural representation of donating time and money. Journal of Neuroscience, 43(36), 6297-6305. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0480-23.2023

Webster, N. J., Ajrouch, K. J., & Antonucci, T. C. (2021). Volunteering and health: The role of social network change. Social Science & Medicine, 285, 114274. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2021.114274

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As a proven clinical research organization, we take every precaution to ensure the safety of and maximize the value for our research volunteers. Qualified doctors, nurses and study coordinators on staff provide support and care throughout the research trial. Participation is always voluntary. We appreciate the time and effort that research volunteers bring to this important process.

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