About one in five U.S adults over age 71 have some sort of cognitive deficit even if they do not have dementia itself. A recent batch of findings suggests this number might be reduced if aging adults engage in volunteer work. The results are interesting, but the nature of their insights—specifically that even a single instance of volunteering can reduce risk—suggests that the result is more correlation than causation.
The study, from Arizona State University, looked at 13,262 individuals who were age 60 or over in 1998, and were then observed until 2012. Every two years, participants were asked if they’d spent any time in the past year doing volunteer work for educational, religious, health-related, or charity groups. The participants were also tested on their ability to learn, make decisions, and concentrate. Information about various lifestyle and risk factors (depression, education levels, etc.) was also gathered.
It was found that participants who regularly volunteered reduced their chance of developing cognitive difficulties by 27%. Even participants who volunteered at just one point in time displayed a marked (though not as large) decrease in their risk levels. This reduction appeared to present independently of any other risk factors the participants possessed, such as smoking or being inactive or other markers of reduced physical health.
What This Means
There is nothing inherently special about volunteer activities that would suggest they are capable of protecting against cognitive impairment in and of themselves. The more likely explanation is that volunteering is connected to some other trait or behavior that is actually behind the findings. For instance, aging adults who volunteer are likely to have more social supports and interactions, which could help keep the mind active and engaged. Even if the underlying cause isn’t clear, the effects themselves seem to be, which is why the authors recommend the phenomena be probed further for a more specific explanation.
Infurna, F., et. al., “Volunteering Is Associated with Lower Risk of Cognitive Impairment,” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 2016; 10.1111/jgs.14398.
“Volunteering May Have Benefits for Memory Among Older Adults,” HealthinAging web site, October 5, 2016; http://www.healthinaging.org/news/research-summaries/article:10-05-2016-12-00am-volunteering-may-have-benefits-for-memory-among-older-adults/, last accessed October 6, 2016.