Gathering and comparing data from multiple experimental trials and longitudinal cohort studies, researchers found about 20 per cent reduction in mortality among volunteers compared to non-volunteers in cohort studies.
The review led by University of Exeter’s Dr Suzanne Richards, pooled data from 40 papers reporting data from 9 experimental trials and 16 cohort studies to arrive at the conclusions.
The prevalence worldwide, of adult volunteering differs, estimates run from 22.5 per cent in Europe, to 36 per cent in Australia and 27 per cent in the USA. Volunteers usually mention selfless motives for their habit, like ‘giving something back’ to the community, or supporting an organisation or charity that has supported them. Volunteering is also done to gain work experience or twiden social circles, but its effects may go much deeper.
Whats in it for Me?
The underlying mechanisms of health benefits of volunteering are uncertain. Some theorize that physical benefits, for example, can be explained by volunteers spending more time out of the house. But the relationship with mental health may be more of a problem.
Even though people are likely 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.
Volunteer too much of the time, and the practice can start to weigh someone down, bringing problems of its own. To decipher the theoretical mechanisms by which volunteers may accrue different health benefits, more research is needed.
“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”, Dr Richards said. “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."
Caroline E Jenkinson, Andy P Dickens, Kerry Jones, Jo Thompson-Coon, Rod S Taylor, Morwenna Rogers, Clare L Bambra, Iain Lang and Suzanne H Richards. Is volunteering a public health intervention? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the health and survival of volunteers. BMC Public Health 2013, 13:773 doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-773