Possible Health Effects of Volunteering Depend on Elders' Driving Habits, Study Finds

By Steve Tokar

Volunteering may contribute to good health among older Americans by reducing social isolation – but only among elders who do not already decrease their isolation by driving regularly, according to a study led by Sei J. Lee, MD, a geriatrician at the San Francisco VA Medical Center.

Sei J. LeeSei J. Lee, MD

In the study of 6,408 retirees over 65, published online in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (Feb. 11, 2011), the authors found that, among elders who never or only occasionally drove, those who volunteered had a death rate of 15 percent, while those who did not volunteer had a death rate of 32 percent. In contrast, among elders who drove, the difference in death rates was not statistically significant – nine percent for volunteers versus 12 percent for non-volunteers.

 “This shows us how central driving is to the social fabric of our country,” said Lee, who is also an assistant adjunct professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

Lee speculated that, in communities where automobiles are the primary means of transportation, “elders who are unable to drive are more likely to be socially isolated, and less likely to have contacts with people who may be able to help them when they are sick or need extra help. Volunteering may be a way for non-driving elders to keep their social networks intact.” 

Lee recommended that, in places where driving is essential, “we reach out to those elders who are unable to drive and, through van services, ride sharing, or other means of transportation, engage them in volunteering, so that their social support networks do not fall by the wayside.”

Elders who drive, he said, “are more able to have an active social life and maintain a network of family and friends they see regularly – and that network is robust enough so that the added social support from volunteering doesn’t contribute much to their health and survival.”

The study indicated that the impact of driving status on mortality was significantly greater for rural residents than for city residents. “This tends to support our hypothesis,” said Lee, “since urban areas have mass transit systems that allow elders to stay connected without driving.”

For the study, the authors analyzed the records of participants in the Health and Retirement Study, an ongoing nationally representative longitudinal study of health, retirement, and aging sponsored by the National Institute on Aging. The participants were interviewed in 2000 and 2002, and the authors looked at who had died by the end of 2006. To determine driving status, subjects were asked if they were able to drive, and if they limited their driving to nearby places or also drove on longer trips.

He also noted the role of volunteering in promoting what he calls “a sense of productive or successful aging.” Physicians who care for older adults, he said, “often see that people who remain bright and engaged are the ones who continue to feel that they are growing and developing and contributing.”

Co-authors of the study are Michael A. Steinman, MD, of SFVAMC and UCSF, and Erwin J. Tan, MD, who was on the faculty at Johns Hopkins University at the time of the study and is currently with the Corporation for National and Community Service in Washington, DC.

The study was supported by funds from the Hartford Geriatric Health Outcomes Research Scholars Award, the Hellman Family Foundation Award for Young Faculty Scholars at UCSF, the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute on Aging, the American Federation for Aging Research, the NIA Johns Hopkins Older Americans Independence Center, and the John A. Hartford Foundation. Some of the funds were administered by the Northern California Institute for Research and Education.

NCIRE - The Veterans Health Research Institute - is the largest research institute associated with a VA medical center. Its mission is to improve the health and well-being of veterans and the general public by supporting a world-class biomedical research program conducted by the UCSF faculty at SFVAMC.

SFVAMC has the largest medical research program in the national VA system, with more than 200 research scientists, all of whom are faculty members at UCSF.


UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care.