Being Warm Hearted: Good for Your Heart!

Teens who volunteered experienced cardiovascular health improvements

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) It's said that helping others can make you feel better. Now there is evidence that helping others might actually improve your physical health as well.

A recent study looked at whether measures of heart health changed in a group of teenagers who did volunteer work.

The results showed that teens who volunteered had small improvements in their heart health compared to a group of teens who didn't volunteer.

The researchers concluded that encouraging teens to volunteer might be a way to improve their health slightly while helping society too.

"Lend a helping hand to others."

The study, led by Hannah M.C. Schreier, PhD, of the Department of Pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, looked at whether volunteering might improve teens' health.

The researchers conducted a trial with 106 public high school tenth-graders in a Canadian city. Half the students volunteered once a week with elementary school children for two months.

The other half of high school students did not volunteer with elementary school students.

The researchers assessed the cardiovascular health of the teenagers based on their C-reactive protein levels, interleukin 6 levels, total cholesterol levels and body mass index.

C-reactive protein and interleukin 6 levels are markers of inflammation. Body mass index (BMI) is a ratio of a person's weight to height that is used to determine whether they are a healthy weight.

At the start of the study, there were no major differences in these measurements among all the teenagers.

At the end of the two-month study, however, the teenagers who had volunteered had lower levels of interleukin 6 and lower cholesterol levels than the teens who didn't volunteer.

The volunteering teens also had a slightly lower average BMI compared to that of the non-volunteering teens.

The researchers saw a very slight decrease in C-reactive protein levels in the volunteering teens, but it was small enough that it could have been due to chance.

The researchers also assessed emotional and behavioral aspects of the teens, including their mood, self-esteem and levels of empathy and altruism.

The researchers found that these measurements also provided some indication of the teens most likely to see improvement in their heart health from volunteering.

"Preliminary analyses within the intervention group suggest that those who increased the most in empathy and altruistic behaviors, and who decreased the most in negative mood, also showed the greatest decreases in cardiovascular risk over time," the authors wrote.

The research was limited by a relatively small population size and by the short-term nature of the study.

It is also possible that other differences between the two groups that were not accounted for, such as sleep or diet differences, could have affected the results.

However, past studies have also shown that helping others can have indirect health benefits. The results of this study appear to support those past findings.

"Adolescents who volunteer to help others also benefit themselves, suggesting a novel way to improve health," the authors wrote.

Richard Humes, MD, FAAP, FACC, Chief of Cardiology at DMC Children's Hospital of Michigan said "The authors of this paper are to be applauded for investigating potential physical health changes which might be altered by something as simple as a volunteer effort. However, I think that it is still a bit early to take the conlusions of this study very seriously. The conclusions that cardiovascular risk is decreased is perhaps supported by the statistical measures, but the changes reported do not appear to have any clinical significance, since this cohort of students did not have much cardiovascular risk to begin with. The lab values may have changed and reached statistical significance but they did not reach clinical significance.

"Since the study took place over a very short 4 month period, it is a bit of an overstatement to conclude that cardiovascular risk is altered in any way. Additionally, the authors did not publish their raw values, just the statistical variances. This may be unintentionally deceptive, but does not allow the reader to actually see how things changed in real terms.

"Volunteering is a good thing and the positive behavioral changes in the study participants reported by this study are more likely to be real. The true value of the "physical" changes will require a lot more investigation."

The study was published February 25 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. The research was funded by William T. Grant Foundation, HopeLab Foundation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
February 27, 2013
Last Updated:
March 12, 2013