Stress and inflammation are implicated in 7 out of the 10 leading causes of mortality. Our preliminary work suggests that helping behavior leads to better health and longevity by regulating stress and inflammation. We will test this possibility among older adults by experimentally manipulating helping behavior (Experiments 1 and 2) and by observing naturally occurring helping behavior longitudinally (Study 3).
We aim to identify neurohormonal mediators circuitry and hormones of the relationship between helping others and health, including long-term changes in biomarkers for chronic inflammation. Experiment 1 will use a between-subjects design to experimentally manipulate emotional closeness (yes, no) and helping behavior (help, control activity). Sixty women (aged 65 and over) will be assigned randomly to one of four conditions: help-close partner; help- stranger; closeness/control; no closeness/control. Following the helping or control activity (both are a reaction time task in an fMRI scanner), all participants will be exposed to a stress induction, also in the scanner. Dependent measures will include neural responses, oxytocin, stress hormones, and cytokines and growth factors. Experiment 2 will be identical in procedure except an additional 30 participants will be asked to bring in a similar-aged female family member or friend (within 10 years), and they will be randomly assigned to either help the friend/family member or to a control activity. Across both experiments, we will test the hypothesis that brain activity and oxytocin associated with helping a close partner will improve stress regulation (H1) and immune function (H2). Study 3 will use ecological momentary assessment (EMA) methods to follow participants from the Experiments, plus an additional 30 women (65 and over), over the course of one year (total N=120) to determine whether those who report higher levels of naturally occurring helping behavior with close others also show lower levels of stress hormones (H1) and markers of inflammation (H2). If successful, we believe this work will (a) inform medical research focused on stress, inflammation, disease, and aging, and (b) stimulate a new generation of non-invasive, pro-social behavioral interventions designed to regulate stress, and thereby reduce morbidity and mortality.
The proposed work seeks to examine the physiological effects of helping behavior in older adults using experimental and observational methods. This work promises to clarify the role of stress and immune system regulation associated with helping behavior. If successful, this work would lead to the design of a new generation of psychosocial interventions for benefiting health outcomes in older age.