What would be the effect of a volunteer program for older adults that was designed specifically to optimize health benefits for the participants?
A recently published report describes just such a study. Linda P. Fried and her coauthors examined Experience Corps, a program created by San Francisco-based Civic Ventures, in the March 2004 issue of the Journal of Urban Health, bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. The researchers used a randomized design that allows for causal inferences. Experience Corps, which recruits older volunteers to act as tutors and mentors for young children, was not only intended to help the students being tutored but was also structured specifically "to increase volunteers' physical, cognitive and social activity" to increase the likelihood of having a positive impact on the volunteers' health. For example, the volunteers were asked to commit to participating in the program for at least 15 hours a week for a full year in order to "ensure a high health promotion dose" from their participation.
The initial research results are promising. Even though the study looked only at short-term effects on a relatively small group, 128 adults ages 60 to 86, it compared 70 Experience Coips participants with a randomized control group of 58 individuals who were not involved in the program. The health status of both groups was evaluated at the beginning of the program and then again between four and eight months later. The results showed that there was "meaningful improvement in each of the primary risk factors" among the participants compared with the nonparticipants. …