Blood taken from donors goes to any number of people in need, including cancer patients, burn victims, those with leukemia, anemia and other blood disorders, and those undergoing surgery for various health problems and emergencies. The process is truly a modern medical miracle, one in which just about any healthy adult can participate and feel good about having done so.
What is more, blood donation puts you in a very select group of charitable people; though blood is needed by someone nearly every 2 seconds in the U.S., only about 5% of the eligible population donates in any given year. As the American Red Cross puts it: "The need is constant. The gratification is instant. Give blood." Few would argue that donating blood saves lives. But could it also be that donating blood provides significant health benefits to the donor as well, perhaps even saving the donor's life?
Evidence over the years suggests there may be real health benefits to regular blood donation. The arguments fall into a few general categories.
Studies have shown that excess iron in the blood may cause and at a minimum is likely contributes to cardiovascular disease. While we all need iron in our bodies, most Americans consume far more iron than is needed as part of our regular diets. Iron speeds up the oxidization of cholesterol, a process that is believed to damage arteries and ultimately lead to heart disease.
Regular blood donation (blood can legally be donated only every 56 days, or about 8 weeks) removes blood as well as some of the iron it contains, helping to reduce iron levels and keep them in check.
Iron is further thought to promote the formation of any number of free radicals causing cellular changes that also lead to heart disease or a number of other chronic illnesses including cancer. A recent long-term Scandinavian study which considered more than a million blood donors suggests a lower risk of cancers (liver, lung, colon, stomach, and throat) in men, with a decreasing cancer rate coinciding with corresponding increases in blood donation rates.
Due to the many precautions blood banks now take, there are virtually no risks to a healthy person donating blood. Among those is a confidential health history screening and a mini physical where the donor's temperature, hemoglobin levels (iron), blood pressure and pulse are taken. Early detection is critical in so many types of health problems, and symptoms may present during the mini physical. Even cholesterol testing is provided as a public service by blood banks with results mailed to the donors.
When you donate blood, you find out your blood type if you don't already know it, as well as any pertinent information that may crop up in the health history or mini-physical. Knowing your blood type can be helpful should you find yourself on the flip side and in need of blood at some point in the future.
For all this, you still typically won't find any other reason than altruism touted by blood banks, which are understandably skittish about promoting blood donation motives that revolve around the donor's self-interest. After all, they have tried that before when blood banks used to actually pay people to give blood. Many donors lied about their medical histories in order to be eligible to donate and earn the money, leading to a considerably tainted blood supply.
Today, the process is clean and efficient, taking about an hour start to finish, with only 10-12 minutes of actual blood donation. The normal adult has 10-12 pints of blood, and about 1 pint is given during donation. Sterile needles and bags and light refreshments ensure no risk of infection, and all the donor is likely to experience is a mild dizziness that quickly fades at worst. Not to mention the feel good sense of having done something noble for good of others. Perhaps too, the donor will learn something about their own health leading to a timely cure.
Considering heart disease is the number one and number three killer of men and women in America, respectively, an hour every 8 weeks seems a relatively small price to pay.