TUESDAY, Aug. 9, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- When older people devote time and effort in volunteering, better health may be their reward, new research suggests.

In a large British study, among those 40 and older, volunteering was associated with good mental health and emotional well-being. But no such link was seen among those younger than 40, the researchers said.

"Volunteering might provide those groups with greater opportunities for beneficial activities and social contacts, which in turn may have protective effects on health status," wrote Faiza Tabassum, of the Statistical Sciences Research Institute at the University of Southampton, England, and colleagues. "With the aging of the population, it is imperative to develop effective health promotion for this last third of life, so that those living longer are healthier."

The study analyzed data from more than 66,000 adults in the United Kingdom who were surveyed between 1996 and 2008. About one-fifth said they had volunteered. Women were more likely to volunteer than men, and nearly one-quarter of those ages 60 to 74 had volunteered, compared with 17 percent of the youngest adults.

The study findings were published Aug. 8 in the online journal BMJ Open.

The findings can't prove a direct link between volunteering and better mental health. But the researchers said the findings suggest that volunteering may be more meaningful as people get older, and called for greater efforts to get middle-aged and older adults to give their time to others.

The researchers pointed to previous studies suggesting that people who volunteer tend to have more resources, wider social networks, and more power and prestige, all of which can benefit physical and mental health.

"Volunteering may also provide a sense of purpose, particularly for those people who have lost their earnings, because regular volunteering helps maintain social networks, which are especially important for older people who are often socially isolated," the study authors wrote.

More information

Helpguide.org has more on the benefits of volunteering.