Researchers from UC Davis Health have discovered that volunteering in late life is linked to improved cognitive function, particularly in executive function and episodic memory. The findings of this study, presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2023 in Amsterdam, could have significant implications for older adults seeking to protect their brain health and reduce the risk of dementia.
The study, led by Rachel Whitmer, the principal investigator, and Yi Lor, an epidemiology doctoral student at the University of California, Davis, sought to explore the relationship between volunteering and cognitive function in a diverse population of older adults. The research examined 2,476 participants from the Kaiser Healthy Aging and Diverse Life Experiences Study (KHANDLE) and the Study of Healthy Aging in African Americans (STAR). The group had an average age of 74 and included individuals from various ethnic and racial backgrounds, with 48% Black, 20% white, 17% Asian, and 14% Latino participants.
The findings revealed a strong correlation between volunteering and better cognitive function. Participants who engaged in volunteer activities reported higher baseline scores on tests of executive function and verbal episodic memory. Importantly, these positive effects persisted even after accounting for factors such as age, sex, education, income, practice effects, and interview mode (phone versus in-person).
One fascinating observation was that those who volunteered several times per week demonstrated the highest levels of executive function, indicating a potential dose-response relationship between volunteering frequency and cognitive benefits.
Donna McCullough, the Alzheimer’s Association chief mission and field operations officer, expressed hope that the study’s findings would encourage people of all ages and backgrounds to get involved in local volunteering efforts. Not only does volunteering benefit communities, but it also appears to have significant advantages for individual cognitive and brain health in older adults.
While the exact mechanisms behind the relationship between volunteering and cognitive function are not fully understood, researchers speculate that volunteer activities contribute to better brain health by promoting physical activity, increasing social interaction, and providing cognitive stimulation. These factors can collectively help protect the brain against cognitive decline and dementia.
Rachel Whitmer emphasized the importance of staying proactive about brain health, especially when other risk factors such as family history or age are beyond one’s control. She highlighted that volunteering is not only a way to keep the brain active but also a means to foster social engagement, happiness, and potentially reduce stress.
Yi Lor, the doctoral student who worked on the study, stressed the significance of their findings, stating that volunteering could serve as a straightforward and accessible intervention for all older adults to safeguard against the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.
The research team plans to explore further whether volunteering can act as a protective measure against cognitive impairment and how physical and mental health factors might influence this relationship.
As the world’s population continues to age, with dementia becoming a growing public health concern, these new insights into the positive effects of volunteering in late life could be a crucial step towards promoting brain health and enhancing the quality of life for older adults.
In conclusion, this groundbreaking study provides compelling evidence that engaging in volunteer activities can play a vital role in protecting older adults’ cognitive function, potentially offering a practical and enjoyable way for seniors to maintain brain health and stave off the onset of dementia. Whether it’s tutoring, community service, or contributing to charitable causes, giving back to society may also be an investment in one’s own cognitive well-being.