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Volunteering Can Improve Mental Health, Extend Life

Volunteering can improve mental health and help you live longer, according to a new study.

A systematic review and meta-analysis led by researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School in England found that volunteers reported lower levels of depression, increased life satisfaction and enhanced well-being.

Comparing data from several experimental trials and longitudinal cohort studies, the researchers also found evidence of an approximately 20 percent reduction in mortality among volunteers compared to non-volunteers. Researchers note the findings have yet to be confirmed in trials.

Worldwide, the prevalence of adult volunteering varies, with estimates of 22.5 percent in Europe, 36 percent in Australia and 27 percent in the USA, according to the researchers.

Volunteers commonly cite altruistic motives, such as “giving something back” to their communities, or supporting an organization or charity that has supported them. Volunteering can also be used to gain work experience or to widen social circles, but its effects may go far deeper, according to researchers.

While previous reviews highlighted supposed health benefits, including increased longevity, improved quality of life, reductions in stress and hospitalization, these tended to be based on narrative, rather than comparative evidence, according to the researchers behind the latest review.

For this review, led by Suzanne Richards, Ph.D., at the University of Exeter Medical School, researchers pooled data from 40 papers, which reported data from nine experimental trials and 16 cohort studies, to arrive at their conclusions.

The review shows that the causes underlying the potential health benefits of volunteering are unclear. Some hypothesize that physical benefits, for example, could be explained by the fact that volunteers spend more time out of the house, according to the researchers. But the relationship with mental health may be trickier, researchers add.

Although people tend to volunteer for altruistic reasons, if they do not feel they are “getting something back,” then the positive impact of volunteering on quality of life is limited, the review found. Researchers also found that if people volunteer too much, the habit can become a burden, bringing problems of its own.

The researchers note that more research is needed to figure out the theoretical mechanisms by which volunteers accrue different health benefits.

“Our systematic review shows that volunteering is associated with improvements in mental health, but more work is needed to establish whether volunteering is actually the cause,” said Richards. “It is still unclear whether biological and cultural factors and social resources that are often associated with better health and survival are also associated with a willingness to volunteer in the first place.

“The challenge now is to encourage people from more diverse backgrounds to take up volunteering, and then to measure whether improvements arise for them.”

The study was published in the open access journal BMC Public Health.

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