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."
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