Volunteerism for older adults – A New Brain Health Strategy?

ENRICH® highlights six brain-healthy behaviors that have been shown to address dementia risk and promote healthy cognitive aging. As you look for other ways to incorporate other brain-healthy habits, volunteerism might arise as an option. Everyone can be proactive about their brain health – and volunteering can be a great way to practice a brain-healthy habit.

The benefits of civic engagement and volunteer work for communities are obvious, but the effect on brain health may be less intuitive. How exactly does volunteering impact brain health? Research suggests that volunteer work is positively correlated to longevity, and in addition to elongating life, volunteering appears to enhance quality of life. There are four primary hypotheses as to how volunteering impacts health and quality of life.

  • First, physical activities such as walking, gardening, building, cooking, and serving food are often required of volunteers. The physical activity needed to enact volunteer work can reduce risk of dementia, diabetes, hypertension, and a host of other health problems. Regular physical activity is also known to have a positive impact on mood.
  • Second, volunteer work can broaden one’s social network, which is extremely important because a poor social network has been shown to increase risk of both depression and dementia.
  • Third, volunteer work often provides the cognitive stimulation that can be lacking in the life of retired individuals. As highlighted by the ENRICH program, routine cognitive stimulation helps to promote brain health and address risk of dementia.
  • Fourth, volunteer work satisfies meaningful engagement. Studies show that volunteer programs that connect older adults to struggling students or younger individuals in need of assistance are particularly effective because they appeal to an older adult’s sense of generativity. This refers to the psychological need to nurture younger individuals and make a positive contribution to the next generation

In addition to volunteering, ENRICH can provide a guide to other brain-healthy behaviors and cognitive exercises. ENRICH is an all-in-one brain health package: a brain health awareness effort, a cognitive assessment tool, a launching point for conversations with providers, and a guide to brain-healthy behaviors and cognitive exercises. It translates the best available science into a simple, user-friendly, multi-step set of tools that empower adults and families to understand their cognitive functioning and dementia risk, and plan proactive responses.

There are numerous opportunities for older adults to volunteer—within a residential care setting or for the greater community.  The BCAT research center strongly recommends civic engagement. If you are trying to select a program be sure to consider what the activity will entail and try to select one that can provide the opportunity for physical activity, social engagement, and cognitive stimulation. With activities like volunteering, you can take control of your brain health and plan proactive responses.

Madeleine Boudreau