Donating blood is a noble act that far too few people perform (myself included). Only 3% of Americans, according to the American Red Cross, donate blood. The organization frequently has an urgent need for blood donors so that people in emergency situations or those suffering from chronic illnesses can receive the transfusions they require.
However, many people are hesitant to donate, whether it’s due to a fear of needles, a fear of passing out, or a belief that they are ineligible.
Some people are also concerned that doing so is unsafe. For example, they may believe that donating will lower their iron levels to an unhealthy level.
Research suggests people who donate blood might have better overall well-being.
“There’s certainly what’s called a ‘healthy donor effect,’” according to Dr. Eldad Hod, the director of the Center for Advanced Laboratory Medicine and an associate professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. “If you simply look at blood donors versus the rest of the population, they’re healthier, they’re happier, they live longer, they have less heart disease, less stroke.”
That said, it’s never been tested to determine if this results from donating blood or because there is a selection bias when it comes to who can donate. You have to be fairly healthy to donate blood — among several health-based limitations, your blood pressure can’t be above or below a certain number and the same goes for your pulse, according to the Red Cross.
Additionally, you have to be able to take time off work or out of your daily responsibilities to donate blood, which is not an option for everyone.
“When you try to study the benefits of donating, are you seeing some of these better statistics because of the donation or is it because they’re blood donors and they’re the folks in the population that are healthy enough to donate?” said Dr. Glenn Ramsey, director of transfusion medicine in the department of pathology at Northwestern Medicine in Illinois. That part is unclear, but data does at least point to an association between the two.
Donating blood is good for your mental health.
According to Hod, people who donate blood are also more altruistic, “so they tend to be happier people.”
“They get some benefit from donating blood because they feel like they’re doing something for society,” he said.
Additionally, Ramsey said that someone who had a loved one who benefited from a blood donation will likely feel extra good when they take part in this public service.
Some think there’s also a potential added benefit for people who don’t lose iron through menstruation, but it’s just a theory.
“There is an age-old hypothesis called the Sullivan Hypothesis … [it] basically hypothesized that one of the reasons women live longer than men is because they menstruate,” Hod said. “By menstruating, you get rid of blood but you also get rid of iron in the process.”
While having too little iron can be problematic in some situations, having too much iron can also be an issue.
“There are diseases where you accumulate too much iron … excess iron settles in your heart and causes heart disease, settles in your liver causes liver disease, can settle in your pancreas [and] cause diabetes,” Hod said. “And so too much iron is a bad thing.”
Essentially, by donating blood, you’re getting rid of iron as anyone who menstruates does when they have their period. “Males have no way of getting rid of iron other than bleeding — so that would be the only way a male can get rid of iron,” Hod said.
You get a health screening when you go to donate blood, which can alert you to any underlying issues.
“There is a little bit of a health check in terms of donating,” Ramsey said. Factors like your blood count and your blood pressure are checked, and you are alerted to issues including an irregular heartbeat as well.
Hod added that you’re also screened for certain infectious diseases including HIV, hepatitis and HTLV, which “is associated with developing a form of blood cancer and other neurologic and inflammatory disorders later in life.”
In other words, the pre-donation screening is a way to check if you have any unknown, underlying conditions that may not have existed as of your last physical or may not have been picked up at a regular doctor’s appointment.
If you’re concerned about any of your screening results, you can make an appointment with your doctor for additional testing and treatment.
You can find out your blood type after the fact.
A 2019 research poll found that just 66% of Americans know their blood type — but donating blood can be one way to find out that information. According to Ramsey, you’re usually sent an official donor card after your donation that has your blood type on it.
Knowing this information is useful in case of an emergency where you need a blood transfusion. And your blood type can even clue you into your predisposed health risks (like heart attacks and certain kinds of cancers), according to Penn Medicine.
Most important, you’re helping to save lives.
As mentioned before, it’s important to have an adequate blood supply in communities throughout the country so necessary medical treatment can happen.
“Most of those patients who are involved in those events are needing blood that’s on the shelf already,” he explained.
If you’re interested in donating blood, Ramsey said you can use aabb.org to find a place near you to donate.