Volunteering after age 40 'may be more meaningful for mental well-being'

Volunteering in middle age and later years may be linked to better mental well-being, British researchers find.
Bob Gill, a volunteer driver with Meals on Wheels By ACC, delivers lunch to Thelma Pense in California last year. Some volunteers could have a larger social network, more power, and more prestige and that in turn may lead to better physical and mental health, researchers say. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

Volunteering in middle age and later years may be linked to better mental well-being, a new study suggests.

Engaging in volunteer work has been associated with mental and physical health in older ages. Now researchers have explored whether this extends to other age groups, based on responses from adults in 5,000 households in Great Britain who answered surveys every two years from 1996 to 2008.

"We conclude that volunteering may be more meaningful for mental well-being at some points of time in the life course," lead author Dr. Faiza Tabassum of Southampton Statistical Sciences Research Institute at the University of Southampton in the UK and her co-authors concluded in this week's BMJ Open.

About 20 per cent of people said they had "done unpaid voluntary work."

Women tended to volunteer more than men.

Social roles and family connections 

Scores for mental health and emotional wellbeing were better among those who'd volunteered than those who never had.

When age was taken into account then the association between emotional wellbeing or mental health and volunteering became apparent around the age of 40 and continued until 80 and after, the researchers found.

"For middle aged and older people, volunteering has beneficial effects because of the social roles and family connections which are more likely to promote volunteering at that stage of the life-course," Tabassum said.

For example, the researchers said, many parents of school-aged children start to volunteer at school activities.

When people volunteer, their social network, power and prestige may all grow, Tabassum said, which could in turn foster physical and mental health.

"These findings argue for more efforts to involve middle-aged people to older people in volunteering-related activities," the researchers wrote.

But the study was observational in nature and the team wasn't able to say whether volunteering causes better emotional well-being.

The researchers speculated one reason that volunteering at younger ages hasn't been associated with mental well-being in this or previous studies is because it may be perceived as an obligation to be a good student, parent or worker.

In contrast, volunteering may provide a sense of purpose, particularly those who lost their earnings, the study's authors said. It could also help to maintain social networks, which is important for older people who are often socially isolated. 

The investigators weren't able to look at whether poor health played a role in limiting participation. 

The study was funded by UK's Economic and Social Research Council, Office for the Third Sector and the Barrow Cadbury Trust. 

With files from Reuters