In particular, stronger executive function and episodic memory are connected with volunteering in later life. These are the results of a brand-new study from the University of California, Davis Health that was presented today (July 20, 2023) at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Amsterdam.
“We hope these new data encourage individuals of all ages and backgrounds to engage in local volunteering not only to benefit their communities, but potentially their own cognitive and brain health,” said Donna McCullough, Alzheimer’s Association chief mission and field operations officer.
Older persons can become more physically active, enhance social connection, and engage in volunteer work that supports educational, religious, health-related, or other charitable groups. These activities also offer cognitive stimulation that may help to safeguard the brain.
There is, however, a dearth of knowledge regarding the connection between volunteering and cognitive function, particularly in large, heterogeneous groups.
Yi Lor, an epidemiology doctoral student at UC Davis, and Rachel Whitmer, the study’s principal investigator, examined volunteering habits among an ethnic and racially diverse population of 2,476 older adults. The participants are in the Kaiser Healthy Aging and Diverse Life Experiences Study (KHANDLE) and the Study of Healthy Aging in African Americans (STAR).
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. Volunteering is about keeping your brain active. It’s also about socializing, which keeps you engaged and happy, and potentially lowers stress.Rachel Whitmer
The study group had an average age of 74 and contained 48% Black, 20% white, 17% Asian and 14% Latino participants. A total of 1,167 (43%) of the participants reported volunteering in the past year.
Volunteering was linked to higher baseline results on assessments of verbal episodic memory and executive function, according to the study’s findings. This was true even after adjusting for age, sex, education, income, practice effects, and interview mode (phone versus in-person).
Those who volunteered several times per week had the highest levels of executive function.
“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,” Lor said. “Our next steps are to examine whether volunteering is protective against cognitive impairment, and how physical and mental health may impact this relationship.”
Over the course of the 1.2-year follow-up period, volunteering was also linked to a trend toward less cognitive impairment, although this association failed to achieve statistical significance.
“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,” Whitmer said. “Volunteering is about keeping your brain active. It’s also about socializing, which keeps you engaged and happy, and potentially lowers stress.”