Volunteering Boosts Seniors’ Cognitive Health

Keep your brain active

Engagement more with life

An international team of researchers conducted a critical review of 73 studies about senior citizen volunteering. Volunteering consistently predicted reduced depressive symptoms, better self-reported health, fewer functional limitations, and lower mortality. In addition, volunteering promoted greater social, physical, and cognitive activity. These factors led to increased altruism and self-efficacy, better physical health, and functional reorganization. These and other mechanisms promote improved psychosocial, physical, and cognitive function, which led to functional improvement and reduced dementia risk.

A recent European study provided further evidence that volunteering predicts better cognitive health. One thousand one retired participants in the Swedish Longitudinal Occupational Survey of Health provided data for their level of volunteering (number of volunteer hours per week) and self-reported cognitive complaints and filled prescriptions for anti-dementia medications. Seniors who reported that they volunteered continuously showed a decrease in cognitive complaints over two and four years of follow-up, respectively. Also, seniors who volunteered continuously had a 2.44- and 2.46-fold lower likelihood of taking an anti-dementia medication over two and four years, respectively. Seniors who reported either no or discontinuous volunteering did not exhibit significant changes in cognitive complaints or the likelihood of taking an anti-dementia medication over two and four years. Further analysis did not support the possibility of reverse causation (that cognitive complaints or the use of anti-dementia medications affected the level of volunteering).

Evidence shows that volunteering promotes cognitive aging in older people. Researchers in New Zealand reviewed 15 published reports that assessed cognitive aging in participants aged 55 years and older. The review concluded that the studies (especially well-designed longitudinal studies) supported the idea that volunteering protects against cognitive decline globally and for certain domains. Studies that used robust designs and investigated domain-specific cognitive functioning showed the largest effect sizes.

Formal volunteering for an organization helps older people live active, engaged lives. Greater life engagement might underlie findings that volunteering predicts improved self-rated health, physical function, and mortality in longitudinal studies. A recent study extends the list of benefits to improved cognitive function. Researchers used data from 11,100 participants over age 50 in the Health and Retirement Study from 1998-2014. Compared to participants that did not volunteer, those who did volunteer in any amount had higher income and wealth, more education, better self-rated health, fewer depressive symptoms, and fewer limitations on instrumental activities of daily living.

After accounting for potentially confounding factors, any amount of formal volunteering predicted higher cognitive function (mostly in working memory and processing speed) compared to not volunteering. Interestingly, volunteers with below average education showed greater cognitive improvement than volunteers with above average education. Volunteering might serve as an effective intervention to promote better cognitive function in older age. Given the high estimated market value of volunteering, this intervention might be cost-effective (worth the money spent) or even cost-saving for the medical care system and the federal government.

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