Posted in: Health Studies

Volunteering May Improve Cardiovascular Health

Reducing heart disease

Cardiovascular disease refers to any disease that affects the cardiovascular system, and is the leading cause of deaths worldwide. Cardiac, vascular, and peripheral arterial diseases are types of cardiovascular diseases. Atherosclerosis (thickening of the arteries typically from accumulated cholesterol) and hypertension (high blood pressure) are the most common causes.

With aging come a number of physiological and morphological changes that alter cardiovascular function and subsequently lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Even seemingly healthy asymptomatic individuals can be afflicted.

Although cardiovascular disease usually affects older adults, prevention efforts are necessary from childhood. There is an increased emphasis on preventing atherosclerosis by modifying risk factors, such as healthy eating, exercise, and avoidance of smoking and excess drinking.

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is a narrowing of the small blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the heart. CHD is also called coronary artery disease and is the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women. Coronary heart disease is caused by the buildup of plaque in the arteries to the heart; hardening of the arteries.

Heart disease symptoms can include chest pain or discomfort (angina) caused from the heart not getting enough blood or oxygen. The severity of the pain varies and may be felt under the breast bone (sternum), neck, arms, stomach, or upper back. Other symptoms include shortness of breath and fatigue associated with activity (exertion).

Women, elderly people, and people with diabetes are more likely to have symptoms other than chest pain, such as fatigue, shortness of breath, and general weakness.

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) of Pediatrics study evaluated the impact of how volunteering can counter the prevalence of heart disease. Based on the search, the benefit is gained by those donating their time altruistically bestowing goodwill unto others.

Researchers, led by postdoctoral fellow at Mount Sinai Dr. Hannah Schreier, assembled two groups of high school sophomores from Vancouver. The project allowed 52 students to satisfy a school-mandated number of civic involvement hours during the fall, the other group in the spring. The spring volunteer group was classified as the control.

The sophomores were asked to donate an hour a week doing after-school activities with elementary school students, working on crafts or homework. Risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as BMI, inflammation, and cholesterol levels were measured before and after each semester.

After ten weeks of volunteering the non-control group showed measurably lower levels of risk factors for cardiovascular disease. There was also a notable improved sense of mood and self-esteem expressed by the students who participated in mentoring elementary school kids. Those who reported the most empathy achieved the utmost improvement to cardiovascular health. Biological markers for inflammation and cholesterol were lower.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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