Volunteering Helps Your Community. It May Also Help Your Brain.

Person with a volunteer shirt. Volunteering for Alzheimer's awareness

August 23, 2023

Older men and women who gave their time to volunteer work had better memory and thinking skills than their peers who didn’t volunteer, according to a new report. Volunteering several times a week provided the greatest boost in brain health, compared to those who volunteered less than once a month or only sporadically. The findings suggest that volunteering may be one more way to help protect the brain against the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease in old age. 

“Volunteering may be important for better cognition in late life and could serve as a simple intervention in all older adults to protect against risk for Alzheimer’s disease and associated dementias,” said study author Yi Lor, an epidemiology doctoral student at the University of California, Davis, and associate director of the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center. 

For the study, the researchers looked at volunteering habits among a group of 2,476 older, ethnically diverse American adults who were part of two large and ongoing studies: the Kaiser Healthy Aging and Diverse Life Experiences Study and the Study of Healthy Aging in African Americans. Their average age was 74.  

Among the study group, 43 reported doing volunteer work in the previous year. Volunteer activities included educational efforts like working as a tutor or as a museum docent, doing work at a church or other religious organization, donating time to a political campaign, working at a hospital or animal shelter, and other charitable and community efforts. 

The researchers found that volunteering was associated with better baseline scores on tests of executive function, which includes the ability to plan, organize and carry out specific tasks and goals and to control our behaviors. People with Alzheimer’s disease show deficits in executive functions, including the ability to get dressed, prepare meals and bathe. Those who volunteered several times per week had the highest levels of executive function. 

Those who volunteered also scored higher on tests of verbal episodic memory, which allows people to recall and relate memories and experiences from the past. Episodic memory is also impaired with Alzheimer’s disease. The cognitive benefits of volunteering were independent of such factors as age, sex, education levels and income. 

Volunteering was also associated with a trend toward less cognitive decline, though the study only lasted just over a year, so those effects were not statistically significant. The findings were presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) 2023. 

Volunteer activities allow older adults to be more physically active and provide cognitive stimulation. Volunteering also promotes social interaction and can help to combat loneliness. All these activities are known to be beneficial for brain health and are associated with a lower risk for Alzheimer’s disease. 

“You’re not in control of your family history or age — you can’t turn back the clock. But you are in control of how you spend your day and life,” said study author Rachel Whitmer of UC Davis. “Volunteering is about keeping your brain active. It’s also about socializing, which keeps you engaged and happy, and potentially lowers stress.” 

If you are interested in volunteering, websites like AARP, Volunteer Match, AmeriCorps, Idealist and United Way can help you find opportunities in your community. The type of activity you choose is less important than finding an activity that you find enjoyable and personally meaningful, experts say. 

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Eric Schmidt, Ph.D. Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University. 

Source: Yi Lor, Rachel Whitmer, et al: “The association of late-life volunteering with cognitive function and cognitive decline in the KHANDLE and STAR cohorts.” Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC), July 17, 2023. 


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