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Volunteering after 40 enhances mental health

Study finds no positive benefit for mental health before age of 40

Ingrid Torjesen

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Volunteering in middle and older age is linked to good mental health and emotional wellbeing, a large study* of British adults, published in the online journal BMJ Open has found. But no such association was seen before the age of 40.

Previous research has shown that volunteering in older age is associated with better mental and physical health, but it was unclear whether this benefit extends to other age groups.

The study was based on responses to the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), a survey of a representative sample of adults living in 5,000 households in Great Britain, which ran every year from 1991 until 2008 and included a wide range of questions on leisure time activities, including the frequency of formal volunteering (from at least once a week through to once a year or less, or never). The survey also included a validated proxy for mental health/emotional wellbeing known as the GHQ-12.

The researchers used 66,343 responses for 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008. Around one in five respondents (21%) said they had volunteered, and women tended to volunteer more than men.

While almost a quarter of those aged 60 to 74 said they volunteered, this proportion dropped to 17% among the youngest age group. GHQ-12 scores were better (lower) among those who volunteered than among those who had never done so (10.7 versus 11.4) across the entire sample, irrespective of age. People who volunteered more frequently tended to have a better (lower) average GHQ score.

When age was looked at, the positive association between volunteering and good mental health/emotional wellbeing became apparent at around the age of 40 and continued up into old age. The association persisted when a range of potentially influential factors were taken into account, including marital status, educational attainment, social class, and state of health.

The researchers speculate that volunteering at younger ages may just be viewed as another obligation, while social roles and family connections in early middle age may spur people to become involved in community activities, such as in their child’s school. They suggest that the findings show that volunteering may be more meaningful at certain points of the life course, and they call for greater efforts to involve middle aged to older people in some sort of volunteering.

“Volunteering might provide those groups with greater opportunities for beneficial activities and social contacts, which in turn may have protective effects on health status,” they said. “With the ageing of the population, it is imperative to develop effective health promotion for this last third of life, so that those living longer are healthier.”

Previous research indicates that people who volunteer are likely to have more resources, a larger social network, and more power and prestige, all of which have knock-on effects on physical and mental health.

* Tabassum F, Mohan J, Smith P. Association of volunteering with mental well-being: a lifecourse analysis of a national population-based longitudinal study in the UK. BMJ Open 2016;6:e011327. DOI:10.1136/bmjopen-2016-011327

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