Volunteering may protect the aging brain from cognitive decline and dementia, new research suggests, but one expert cautions that more research is necessary to explore the connection.
The study examined a diverse group of seniors and found that those who did volunteer work had better cognitive function, specifically executive function and episodic memory, than did peers who did not volunteer.
"Volunteering entails many aspects which we know are linked to better brain health, such as increased physical activity, more social interaction, and higher mental engagement. There is also the satisfaction of knowing you are helping someone," study investigator Yi Lor, an epidemiology doctoral student at the University of California, Davis, told Medscape Medical News.
The study was presented at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference (AAIC) 2023.
Good for the Brain and the Community
The researchers examined volunteering habits of 2476 adults (mean age, 74 years; 48% Black, 20% White, 17% Asian, 14% Latinx) participating in the Kaiser Healthy Aging and Diverse Life Experiences Study (KHANDLE) and Study of Healthy Aging in African Americans (STAR).
In the combined group, 1167 (43%) seniors reported doing volunteer work in the past year.
After adjusting for relevant cofactors, those who volunteered had higher baseline executive function (β = 0.178) and verbal episodic memory (β = 0.111) on average compared with those who did not volunteer.
Volunteering two to three times per month (β = 0.216) to a few times per week (β = 0.281) was also associated with higher baseline executive function and verbal episodic memory.
Volunteering was also associated with a trend toward less cognitive decline over the follow-up time of 1.2 years, but this association did not reach statistical significance, the researchers found.
"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 in a conference statement.
Lor said that one of the goals of future research is to determine how volunteering may help protect against cognitive decline and dementia among different racial and ethnic groups.
In an interview with Medscape Medical News, Percy Griffin, PhD, director of scientific engagement at the Alzheimer's Association, said that this study shows "an exciting correlation" between volunteering and better cognition later in life.
"However, it does not definitively prove that volunteering protects memory and thinking. It could be that people with good cognition are more likely to volunteer in the first place, so more research is needed to better explore this connection," Griffin cautioned.
"Volunteers are cornerstones of all communities and imperative to the success and impact of many organizations, including the Alzheimer's Association," Donna McCullough, Alzheimer's Association chief mission and field operations officer, added in a statement.
"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," McCullough said.
Support for the study was provided by the National Institute on Aging. Lor, Percy and McCullough have no relevant disclosures.
Alzheimer's Association International Conference (AAIC) 2023. Presented July 20, 2023. Abstract 77992
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Cite this: Volunteering Later in Life Good for the Aging Brain - Medscape - Jul 20, 2023.