Volunteering may boost mental wellbeing in older adults

Posted on: 22 August 2016 by Olderiswiser Editorial

NHS Choices Behind the Headlines news anlysis service examines the science of claims that the mental health of older people is benefited by voluntary work.

mental wellbeing of older people helped by voluntary work

"Giving up time for charity work found to boost mental wellbeing as people get older," the Mail Online reports. A new UK-based study found that volunteering was associated with increased mental wellbeing; but mainly in adults aged between 40 and 70.

Researchers used data from the British Household Panel Survey, which is an ongoing survey designed to track social and public health trends.

Researchers found that, generally, people's health and mental wellbeing score got worse as they got older. However, when people got over the age of 40-45, while scores generally continued to get worse for those who never volunteered, they got better for those who did any volunteering.

The study's main limitation is that this can't prove cause and effect, or tell the direction of the relationship. People who volunteer may have better health scores because those who feel healthy, active and in a good state of wellbeing are more likely to go out and volunteer to help others than those who feel in poor health. It's not necessarily the case that the reverse is true; that volunteering has caused the good health state.

It could be that the association works both ways – better wellbeing probably makes you more inclined to help others, and helping others probably boosts your sense of wellbeing.

The demand for volunteers remains high and there is always somebody you can help or something you can do to make the world a better place. Read more about options for volunteering, whatever your age.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by three researchers from the University of Southampton and University of Birmingham, and was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Office for the Third Sector, and the Barrow Cadbury Trust through the Third Sector Research Centre.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed BMJ Open journal, which as the name suggests, is openly available for access to all.

The media generally takes quite a simplistic view on these findings which do not prove that volunteering boosts wellbeing. The Mail includes messages such as "if you want to get the most out of charity work wait until you are at least 40", "younger people view helping others as a duty and a chore" and "as people get older, volunteering really boosts their mental wellbeing" – not one of which is demonstrated by the findings of this study.

Similarly, The Daily Telegraph reports that "Volunteering is not beneficial until you hit 40, study finds." The implication that you should only do charitable work if you are guaranteed to benefit from it seems a little, well, uncharitable.

What kind of research was this?

This was a cohort study based on data collected during the British Household Panel Survey which aimed to see whether volunteering was associated with mental wellbeing among British people across the course of life.

Previous research has suggested that freely giving to benefit another person, group or organisation can boost a person's self-rated health, though most studies have looked at older adults. This study aimed to see whether it affects all age groups.

What did the research involve?

The British Household Panel Survey started in 1991, selecting a nationally representative sample of 5,000 households. Those aged 15 or over were interviewed annually until 2008. The study captures 18 waves of data covering various age groups followed up over time.

The survey collected data on various areas of the participants' life, including occupation, education, health, household consumption, and social life. Information on volunteering was collected in alternative years starting from wave 6 (1996). This was assessed by asking if people "do unpaid voluntary work".

Response categories were:

  • at least once a week
  • once a month
  • several times a year
  • once a year or less
  • never

For the purpose of this analysis the researchers combined groups 2 and 3 to give four overall groups – frequent, infrequent, rare or never.

The outcome of interest was the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ) response, which includes 12 questions covering happiness, mental distress (anguish or depression) and well-being to give a total score of between 0 and 36. The lower the GHQ score, the better a person's health is judged to be.

Researchers adjusted for potential confounding factors including income, marital status, educational level and social group.

What were the basic results?

After excluding those with missing exposure or outcome data, the researchers had data for 66,343 people (47% male).

Most people (80%) did not do any volunteer work each survey year. About a quarter of those aged 60-74 volunteered compared with 17% in the youngest 15-29 age group. Also, more women (22%) volunteered than men (19.5%).

Those who did any volunteering had slightly better (lower) GHQ scores than those who did none (10.7 vs. 11.4). Scores were lowest among those who frequently volunteered.

When looking at the interaction between volunteering, GHQ score and age, they found that generally, regardless of volunteer status, all people's GHQ score got worse (higher) as they aged. However, when you got above the age of 40-45, scores generally continued to rise for those who never volunteered, but went down again for all those who volunteered – rarely, infrequently or frequently.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers conclude: "volunteering may be more meaningful for mental well-being at some points of time in the life course".


This research doesn't prove that volunteering will improve your sense of health and wellbeing.

The study does have several strengths in that it is a high quality nationally representative survey that collected regular and comprehensive data for a large number of UK citizens.

However, the main limitation is that it's unable to prove cause and effect, or suggest the direction of the relationship. Those who volunteered had better (lower) GHQ scores than those who didn't – and this was most marked in middle aged to older adults. But this may mean that those who feel healthy, active and in a good state of wellbeing are more likely to go out and volunteer to help others than those who feel in poor health. Not necessarily the reverse, that volunteering has caused the good health state.

The score difference was also marginal – on average 11.4 for those who never volunteered compared with 10.7 for those who did. How much of a meaningful difference this small difference would make to the person's everyday life is not possible to say. These are also of course subjective scores – not confirmed diagnoses of depression. 

When looking at the volunteer work, the survey did not prompt respondents with examples of what might be meant by "unpaid voluntary work". Neither did it look into the types of work they did. Therefore, it isn't certain that this is a reliable estimate of the frequency of volunteering in Britain.

Additionally, while this study has data for more than 66,000 people, this still only represents two-thirds of those taking part in the surveys, the rest had incomplete data. Those with missing data tended to be younger, female, of lower education and occupational level. The researchers say that GHQ scores did not differ between drop-outs and those analysed, but the full data-set may still have had some difference.

The relationship between a person's self-rated health and wellbeing and whether or not they volunteer is likely to be a complex relationship influenced by many other factors and personal characteristics. It most probably works both ways – better wellbeing probably makes you more inclined to help others, and helping others probably boosts your sense of wellbeing.  

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices.

This content was originally published on NHS CHoices Behind the Headlines

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