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Volunteering May Keep Elderly Stronger

Finding debunks myth that condition is unavoidable, expert says

THURSDAY, Dec. 31 (HealthDay News) -- Volunteering one's time and energy might help stave off frailty among the elderly.

The notion is drawn from a fresh analysis of data nearly two decades old that tracked the activities of over 1,000 physically active men and women in their 70s who were described as reasonably high-functioning.

Those who spent time volunteering were less likely to become frail, a physical diminishing that sometimes happens among the elderly.

"Of course, this certainly does not prove that volunteering prevents frailty," cautioned Dr. Catherine Sarkisian, an associate professor of geriatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. "This was an observational study. But this suggests that maybe there is something about working to help other people -- and getting outside yourself -- that has benefits for the elderly, both mentally and physically."

The data were initially collected between 1988 and 1991 by the MacArthur Study of Successful Aging. Among the participants, 28 percent did some type of volunteer work, 25 percent performed child-care duties and 19 percent worked for a salary. Some did more than one of these activities, and 45 percent participated in none of them, the study found.

Sarkisian, who is also a staff physician with the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, and her fellow researchers assessed the degree of frailty among the participants based on five criteria: weight loss, weakness in grip strength, exhaustion, slow movement and low levels of physical activity.

About 3 percent of the participants had been classified as frail at the start of the study, and after three years, the number had risen to 7 percent.

After accounting for such factors as age, cognitive function and disability, the researchers found that neither paid work nor child care appeared to protect against the onset of frailty. However, volunteering was associated with a reduced risk for becoming frail, they concluded.

Their findings were published online Dec. 16 in the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences.

Using different definitions of frailty might alter the findings, the researchers said, and they stressed that it would be premature to suggest that volunteer work directly protected against frailty. Other factors -- including religious beliefs and practices, and having a strong sense of "personal mastery" about one's activities -- could also play a role in warding off frailty, they noted.

"But I think the most exciting thing about this subject in general is that so often we've assumed that frailty is something that you can't avoid when you get old," Sarkisian said. "And for many people, that is certainly true. But it's exciting to think that maybe there are potentially many things we can do outside of medicine that can help stave off frailty."

She noted that researchers have already begun further exploration of a volunteerism-frailty connection.

S. Jay Olshansky, a senior research scientist at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, said he already views the current study as "encouraging" and a potential boon to elder care.

"There's always a potential selection bias going on with this sort of study, meaning that, in general, people who become frail cannot volunteer in the first place so the ones who are left behind are, by definition, the ones who are healthy," he explained.

"But I have to say that that problem aside, I'm not surprised by this finding," Olshansky said. "The evidence I've seen elsewhere suggesting that this could be beneficial is extremely promising -- and exciting, actually -- because it's the very kind of research that illustrates the malleability of people at almost every age."

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Aging has information on healthy aging.

SOURCES: Catherine Sarkisian, M.D., associate professor, division of geriatrics, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles, and staff physician, VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, Los Angeles; S. Jay Olshansky, Ph.D., professor, epidemiology and public health, and senior research scientist, School of Public Health, University of Illinois, Chicago; Dec. 16, 2009, Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, online

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