Volunteering can be thought of as the gift that keeps on giving. Not only can it significantly impact the lives of others and the wider community, but it can also positively impact your own health and wellbeing. Recent research indicates that volunteering in later life can have remarkable health advantages and this article explores the physical, mental and cognitive health benefits that it can provide.
Just how important is volunteering for healthy ageing?
A recent study found that volunteering is the 5th most important factor for healthy ageing (out of 50 factors), according to 21,000 participants aged 55 and above from 21 countries. (Alongside volunteering, other important factors for healthy ageing were listed as financial security, meaningful connections, stress management, and physical activity)g.
Volunteering and improved overall health
A large pool of research has shown that volunteers report better physical health and mental health, with reduced levels of stress, depression and anxiety compared to non-volunteers. It can also provide social engagement that counteracts loneliness and promotes positive feelings of joy, meaning and gratitude. All of these factors can contribute to better mental and physical health.
Volunteering can be especially impactful in later life. One study (2006) reported that volunteers aged 65 and over linked volunteering to positive self-identity, a sense of purpose, increased self-confidence and self-esteem and that helping in the community reduced the focus solely on their personal life. Many also reported that volunteering provided them with more control and choices in life and opportunities for personal development such as giving back to their community.
Enhancing Brain Health
In many cases, volunteering can also require learning new skills and problem-solving - two important activities that stimulate brain activity and promote cognitive health.
A study (of 2,476 older volunteers from diverse ethnic backgrounds, with an average age of 74) found that volunteering in later stages of life can improve cognitive function, particularly executive functioning skills and episodic memory and can even possibly serve as an intervention to protect against the risk of dementia. Those who volunteered several times a week had the highest levels of cognitive function.
Taking the leap
Volunteering in later life can have numerous benefits for both physical and mental health. It can help reduce feelings of loneliness and depression, improve physical health, enhance feelings of well-being and social connectedness, and promote cognitive health. So, if you're looking for a way to boost your health in later life, remember, it's never too late to start volunteering. There are countless opportunities to get involved with, such as helping out at your local:
🏛️museum or gardens
🌳gardening group or park
📞befriending service (on the phone or in person)
To get support in finding opportunities for volunteering near you, you can try your local library, community centre, council or social prescribing service.