Giving time to help others with shopping, child care, house work and other errands may be good for our health and help us live longer, according to a new US study that looked at how giving practical assistance to others affects the relationship between stress and risk of death.

The study is the work of researchers from the University at Buffalo and Stony Brook University in New York, plus Grand Valley State University in Michigan. They write about their findings in the 17 January online before print issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Lead author Michael J. Poulin, assistant professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo, says in a press statement released this week:

“This study offers a significant contribution to the research literature on the relationship between social environment and health, and specifically to our understanding of how giving assistance to others may offer health benefits to the giver by buffering the negative effects of stress.”

The findings are interesting because, while it is already established that social isolation and stress contribute to ill health and premature death, two decades of studies and pooled analyses have failed to find that receiving support from others buffers people from increased risk of death due to stress.

It was against that background that Poulin and colleagues decided to test the idea that “providing help to others would predict a reduced association between stress and mortality for the helpers”.

“Specifically, over the five years of the study, we found that when dealing with stressful situations, those who had helped others during the previous year were less likely to die than those who had not helped others,” says Poulin.

For their analysis, the researchers used data that had been collected between 1987 and 1988 for a study on 423 married couples in the Detroit, Michigan, area.

The original study was designed to look at spousal bereavement, but in interviews, the 846 participants had also answered questions on a range of other social, mental and physical health variables, so it was possible for Poulin and colleagues to do a secondary analysis from a different angle.

The participants were asked to report stressful events they had experienced in the previous year and whether they had provided “tangible assistance” to family, friends and neighbours in the past year.

Stressful events included things like serious, non-life-threatening illness, death of a family member, burglary, loss of job, or financial difficulties.

Giving tangible assistance was assessed as the amount of time spent helping friends, neighbours and family not living with them, by giving them lifts, doing their shopping, housework, running errands, looking after children, and other tasks.

The researchers used previously collected information to establish which participants died during the five years follow-up. The information had come from scanning obituaries in local newspapers and state death records.

The average age of the participants was 71. Overall, 134 of them (about 16%) died during the follow-up period.

Poulin says, “when we adjusted for age, baseline health and functioning and key psychosocial variables, the Cox proportional hazard models (the most widely used method of survival analysis) for mortality revealed a significant interaction between helping behavior, stressful events, morbidity and mortality”.

He and his colleagues conclude:

“Helping others predicted reduced mortality specifically by buffering the association between stress and mortality.”

Poulin says their findings go further than previous studies to show that health benefits of helping come specifically from stress- buffering.

They also provide “important guidance for understanding why helping behavior specifically may promote health and, potentially, for how social processes in general may influence health,” he adds.

A review of the study for NHS Choices draws attention to some of its limitations, such as the fact the data was collected 25 years ago, the participants were not representative of the general population (older, married couples), and the fact social or emotional support (as opposed to practical help), was not measured. This last point could be particularly relevant in that participants with mobility problems may not have been able to give practical help.

Nevertheless, the reviewer says the study remains an interesting one because it offers an insight into “an often neglected field of research – whether altruistic behaviour also brings individual benefits”.

In another intriguing insight on stress, researchers recently showed that it is our reactions to our stressful situations that can predict health problems ten years later, regardless of present health and the stressors themselves.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD