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Volunteering boosts mental wellbeing

Volunteering boosts mental wellbeing

Middle-aged and elderly people can boost their mental wellbeing by volunteering, a new study claims.

But those under the age of 40 are less likely to reap similar benefits, the authors found.

Previous research has linked volunteering to mental wellbeing but it is the first time that researchers have examined whether it is beneficial to different age groups.

Researchers from the University of Southampton and the University of Birmingham in the U.K. reviewed over 66,000 responses by adults to questions posed through the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS).

Questions on volunteering were asked on numerous occasions between 1996 and 2008. Around 21 per cent of respondents said they had carried out some kind of formal volunteering activity with women tending to volunteer more than men. Using a mental health/emotional wellbeing score chart, the researchers found that across the whole sample, the scores were best among those who were frequent volunteers and worst among those who never volunteered.

When age was factored in by the research team, the positive association between volunteering and good mental health and emotional wellbeing became apparent at around the age of 40 and continued up into old age.

"Voluntary action might provide those groups with greater opportunities for beneficial activities and social contacts, which in turn may have protective effects on health status," said Dr Faiza Tabassum. "Particularly, 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."

The researchers found that those who had never volunteered had lower levels of emotional wellbeing, starting at midlife and continuing into old age compared with those who did volunteer.

Dr Tabassum added: "Volunteering may also provide a sense of purpose, particularly for those people who have lost their earnings, because regular volunteering helps contribute to the maintenance of social networks, and this is especially the case for older people who often live in isolation."

The findings held true even after taking account of a range of potentially influential factors, including marital status, educational attainment, and social class. The researchers were not able to gauge the extent of “informal” volunteering, such as helping out neighbours so couldn't capture the full spectrum of voluntary activities.

The study was published in BMJ Open.

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