Researcher: Giving Can Save Your Life

"We measured a variety of indicators of health, including their self-rated health, their functional health, like whether they could get out of bed or climb stairs," she says. "We also looked at their health behavior like exercise, drinking and smoking, as well as their mental health, such as depression and anxiety."

That allowed her to reduce the impact on the study of people who were too sick, or too depressed, to give of themselves.

The resulting data set zeroed in on the effect of giving, she says.

And Brown says the evidence showed that people who gave nothing were twice as likely to die as people who gave at least something.

Giving Therapy

She's the first to admit that lots more research needs to be done before her findings can be fully embraced, but if she's right, it could turn some forms of therapy upside down.

For example, one technique used to help people recover from a devastating illness is to put them in contact with others to show them that they are not alone, and they have the support of friends and acquaintances.

That social contact has long been thought to be very beneficial in the recovery process.

But if Brown is right, that puts the emphasis on the wrong thing. It isn't help from others that is so beneficial. It's the other way around. Helping someone else may be the best therapy of all.

She points out that people with a "fighting spirit" seem to have a better chance of recovering from cancer. Maybe that takes away the feeling of helplessness that makes recovery so much more difficult.

And maybe, Brown's research suggests, if someone who is ailing can help someone else, their recovery will come even quicker. A "giving spirit" may work wonders.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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