Volunteering in Mid and Old Age Linked To Better Mental Health

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:

Dr. Faiza Tabassum, PhD University of Southampton, Southampton

Dr. Faiza Tabassum

Dr. Faiza Tabassum, PhD
Southampton Statistical Sciences Research Institute 
University of Southampton
Southampton, UK

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study?

Response: Previous research has shown that volunteering in older age is associated with better mental and physical health, but it’s unclear whether this extends to other age groups. We aimed to examine the association of volunteering with mental health or well-being among the British population across all ages.

The British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) was used which has collected information from 1991 to 2008 from over 5000 households. The published study has analysed over 66,000 responses representing the whole of the UK. The BHPS included a wide range of questions on leisure time activities, which covered the frequency of formal volunteering—from at least once a week through to once a year or less, or never. The BHPS also included a validated proxy for mental health/emotional wellbeing known as the GHQ-12.

MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings?

• Around 21% respondents said they had carried out some kind of formal volunteering activity with women tending to volunteer more than men.
• GHQ-12 scores were better (lower) among those who volunteered than among those who had never done so—10.7 vs 11.4—across the entire sample, irrespective of age.
• The average GHQ score was the best (lowest) among those who were frequent volunteers and worst (highest) among those who never volunteered..
• When age was factored in, 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 (80+).

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. The findings held true even after taking account of a range of potentially influential factors, including marital status, educational attainment, social class, and state of health.

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?

Response: The key message is that engaging older and middle aged demographic groups in volunteering activities may be associated with better mental health but the same does not hold for younger population. The study 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.

Most importantly, 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. Volunteering might provide those groups with greater opportunities for beneficial activities and social contacts, which in turn may have protective effects on health status.

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Response: This is an observational study so no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect, any future study can examine this aspect. Also, a randomised control study is required to examine the beneficial effects of volunteering on well-being of younger people which an observational study like BHPS was unable to explore.

MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: From 2015 to 2020, an increase of 12% among over 65+ and 18% among 85+ age groups has been estimated in Britain, which may result a higher spending on health and investing more on employment opportunities for these age groups. So, the results of the present study are in relevance with aging of the population and requires more attention from the government in engaging this particular group in volunteering activities for better health.

MedicalResearch.com: Thank you for your contribution to the MedicalResearch.com community.


Faiza Tabassum, John Mohan, Peter Smith. Association of volunteering with mental well-being: a lifecourse analysis of a national population-based longitudinal study in the UK. BMJ Open, 2016; 6 (8): e011327 DOI:10.1136/bmjopen-2016-011327

Note: Content is Not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider regarding your specific medical condition and questions.

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