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Volunteering in middle age linked to better mental health

The positive association between volunteering and good mental health is apparent from around age 40 and continues into old age, say researchers. 

Volunteering in middle and older age is linked to good mental health and emotional wellbeing, say researchers from the universities of Southampton and Birmingham. 


Volunteering is associated with good mental health. Photo: Alamy

Using the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), which ran every year from 1991 to 2008, the researchers studied adults living in 5,000 UK households, looking at the frequency of formal volunteering from at least once a week to once a year or less, or never. 

The study gathered a total of 66,343 responses for 1996 and every two years up until 2008. One in five respondents said they had volunteered, with women more likely to volunteer than men. Almost a quarter of those aged 60 to 74 said they volunteered, dropping to 17% among the youngest age group.  

Mental health and emotional wellbeing were assessed using a 12-item general health questionnaire (GHQ-12) contained in the BHPS. The researchers found that GHQ-12 scores were better (lower) among those who volunteered than among those who had never done so, irrespective of age. 

When age was factored in, the positive association between volunteering and good mental health and emotional wellbeing became apparent at around age 40 and continued into old age (80 and over). 

The researchers said one explanation is that volunteering at younger ages could be viewed as an obligation, while social roles and family connections in early middle age can prompt people to become involved in community activities, such as in their child’s school. 

‘Volunteering helps maintain social networks, which are especially important for older people who are often socially isolated,’ they added. 

 

Tabassum F et al (2016) Association of volunteering with mental well-being: a lifecourse analysis of a national population-based longitudinal study in the UK. BMJ Open. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2016- 011327. 

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