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Theme: Healthy People, Healthy Environments
This review is being run in conjunction with the Evidence Synthesis Team.
Volunteering is known to have benefits to the volunteer, including better chances for finding paid employment and meeting new people. However, improvement to health is rarely given as a reason to volunteer.
We wanted to look at how volunteering affected the mental and physical health and survival of volunteers and also to find out if some types of volunteering have better health benefits than others.
The research was a systematic review. This brings together the results of all studies addressing the same research question.
The review included 9 experimental studies and 17 unique cohort studies (which follow groups of people over time). All of the experimental studies and most of the cohort studies were carried out in North America and most of the volunteers in the studies were female.
Volunteering has benefits for the mental health and survival of the volunteer but we still do not know why.
Studies which followed groups of volunteers over time (cohort studies) found the volunteering had positive effects on depression, life satisfaction and wellbeing, but not on physical health
It was not possible to find out from this review what type of volunteering had the best results, or the strongest benefits.
Health benefits might be limited to older volunteers
It is possible that volunteering is only good for the mental health of the volunteer if carried out as an act of free will and choice, rather than as a prescribed treatment.
Most of the experimental studies were found to have a moderate to high risk of bias, due to people dropping out of the studies or small numbers that took part. As most of the studies were carried out in the USA and involved volunteers aged 50+, the results might not be the same in future studies in other countries and age groups.
It was difficult to disentangle the health benefits seen due to the activities undertaken by the volunteers (e.g. physical or social activity such as leaving the house or meeting people) from benefits caused by the action of volunteering in itself.
We found that volunteering has an impact on survival of volunteers, despite the lack of evidence impact on physical and mental health, but we do not know why this is. Since people that have stronger social relationships tend to live longer, the social aspects of volunteering may contribute towards this association.
If it is accepted that volunteering has benefits to health, a key challenge is how to achieve wider participation among socially disadvantaged groups at the greatest risk of experiencing poor health.
More work is needed to find out what type or dose of volunteering activity is associated with the greatest health improvements, for which outcomes and for whom.
Dr Suzanne Richards, Professor Rod Taylor