The Science of Volunteering

(July 10th, 2015)

Last night as I finished up some fluorescent immunohistochemistry and listened to the rain (always remembering that I left my umbrella at home) I perused Scopus for papers on Elder issues. Scopus, for the non-nerds, is a site for searching for scientific articles. Sloan Kettering, where I work, purchases access to many scientific journals. Most of the journals they keep are in some way related to cancer. This leaves me out in the cold when it comes to journals called Gerontechnology, or Journal of Nutrition in Gerontology and Geriatrics, or Journal of Aging Research. It turns out that there are many journals that focus on the science of being a senior. If you scramble any combination of the words "gerontology," "journal," "age," and "geriatrics" you are probably naming a real journal.
Flowers about to bloom along my running route.

In science the abstract of the paper is published freely. The abstract is a super condensed blerb of the paper. It functions as an elevator pitch and an advertisement to read the rest. From this I can glean a bit of information even if I can't read the entire paper. And I can make a few inferences about what is being published too. Judging by paper titles alone good access is a real problem for seniors.

People have tried all sorts of fun ways to get low-income seniors better access to fruit and vegetables. My favorite was the "veggie mobile." It seems rather obvious that delivering vegetables (and at a reduced rate) would increase the amount eaten by seniors. And it did, though the amount of change it created was small (sample size was rather small and may not be as reliable). Another paper had a very long abstract. They went into great detail about their ideas for a networked and interactive kitchen. Everything would be wired and report "local as well as remote" on the activity. Somehow people would be able to interact and even teach how to cook in these "smart kitchens." I got rather lost in all the wires. I did however agree with their basic premise. Food-based activities are at the heart of many social relationships. How often do I go out for food or drinks with the main point being to spend time with friends? All the time. If I want to drink I can do that from the comfort of my little blue couch.

Same Flower 24 hours later.
On a bright note it turns out that volunteering is good for more things than just getting you into college. This is good news for me as on Monday I have my first "getting involved" meeting about volunteering with seniors here in NYC. A recent paper published in Daedalus* by scientists from Stanford and Columbia University says that volunteering is even good for seniors. Yes, I hope I'll be helping. But the paper claims that it is good for seniors to be the volunteers. 

Research shows that older volunteers have a lower likelihood of hypertension. But that's not all. Volunteering increases your sense of well-being, delays physical decline, improves cognition, and here is the kicker, reduces mortality. So it has that going for it. Which is nice.

While the authors admit that they do not know how these improvements are made, they suggest it probably has much to do with social relationships. Your socio-economic standing affects how likely you are to volunteer. And while individuals in lower socio-economic groups are less likely to volunteer, they also benefit much more from being a volunteer. The authors argue that a great way to improve senior health is to promote volunteerism.

I am glad H.O.M.E. through their shopping bus gives low-income seniors access to healthy food as well as an opportunity to pick up their medicine and other home needs. Reliable and safe access to food and other necessities is a big deal in Chicago and in the rest of the US. Please partner with me in supporting seniors in Chicago with H.O.M.E.

*I'm sure you are trying to remember where you heard of Daedalus before. He built the labyrinth in Crete where the nice bull-man hung out. Oh, and He also built a hollow wooden cow so that Pasiphae could be impregnated by a handsome bull and give birth to said bull-man. Such a lovely story. I doubt this episode is the inspiration for the journal name but you never know.

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