Volunteering and health: The role of social network change

Document Type


Publication Date



Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminology

Publication Title

Social Science and Medicine


Objectives: Levels of volunteering may differentially influence multiple dimensions of health among older adults. Further, increasing evidence indicates social networks represent critical bridging and bonding contexts for the volunteering-health link. This study examines two research questions: 1) does volunteering level (low, moderate, high) influence physical and mental health in the same ways? And 2) does social network change moderate this link? Methods: Data come from Waves 1 and 2 of the longitudinal Social Relations Study (n = 556) collected in 1992 and 2005 and the sub-sample of adults age 50 and older at Wave 2. Regression analyses predicting self-rated health and depressive symptoms were conducted to examine main effects of volunteering and moderating effects of social network change. Results: Volunteering at a moderate level (101–300 hours per year) was associated with fewer depressive symptoms compared to those not volunteering. Social network change moderated the association between volunteering and self-rated health. Among those reporting a decrease in the proportion of non-family in their network (decrease in bridging), a moderate level of volunteering was associated with better self-rated health. Conclusion: While moderate levels of volunteering are associated with better mental health, the link to physical health is only present in the context of decreasing network bridging. Identifying specific circumstances under which volunteering is beneficial is critical for developing interventions to promote health for all, including those in mid and later life.

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