Evidence needed: The effect of volunteering on health

Here at EBL, we’ve written before about the impact of volunteering on public health.  In fact, Cornell gerontologist Karl Pillemer has conducted research that found that older adults who get involved in creating a sustainable society are not only helping the environment, they are also helping themselves. So we were interested to find a new systematic review on the health and survival of people who volunteer.

For the review, researchers searched databases looking  for studies that compared the physical and mental health and mortality of volunteers with people who did not volunteer. They found a total of 26 studies: five randomized controlled trials; four non-randomized controlled trials; and 17 cohort studies that provided observational evidence without the rigors of a randomized trial.

When the reviewers looked at the total body of evidence, the results were mixed. The observational studies showed that volunteering had positive effects on depression, life satisfaction and well being, but not on actual physical health. But the experimental studies – those that used rigorous scientific methods – did not find any health benefit for people who volunteered compared to those who did not.

The experimental studies did find lower mortality risks among volunteers, but it’s not clear what the exact link is.

The reviewers conclude what while observational studies show volunteering could benefit physical health, the exact causes are unclear. They call for more studies to “explicitly map intervention design to clear health outcomes” and use randomized-controlled trials” to test the health effects of volunteering.

There are a few take-home messages from this review.  First, randomized-controlled studies truly are the gold standard for knowing whether a treatment really works. Also, while the research is mixed on individual benefits from volunteering, it’s clear that volunteers do make important differences in their communities.

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