In the fight against the disease that will kill one of every four people you know, most scientists studying cardiovascular epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health are focusing on usual suspects like cholesterol, obesity, and cardiac structure. But research fellow Eric Kim has a unique focus: purpose in life. How does it affect health, how is it gained and lost, and how can it be weaponized to keep people alive and well?
When Canadian tenth-graders in a recent study began volunteering at an after-school program for children, the high schoolers lost weight and had improved cholesterol profiles compared to their non-volunteering peers. (Even in Canada, teenagers have cholesterol problems.) In the journal JAMA Pediatrics, the researchers concluded, “Adolescents who volunteer to help others also benefit themselves, suggesting a novel way to improve health.”
In another randomized controlled trial at Washington University in St. Louis, older adults who began tutoring children through a program called Experience Corps demonstrated improvements in stamina, memory, and flexibility, as well as levels of depression. When I spoke with Kim last year, he attributed at least part of those gains to the effects of a sense of purpose in life. And he is continuing to do observational studies in hope of figuring out how and why volunteering seems to lead to better health. To date, research in the area has been focused on the associations between volunteering and health status and mortality risk (24 percent lower); it has only scratched the surface on understanding mechanisms and implications for the health-care system and how real people can use this information.