Volunteering as a Way to Keep a Sharp Mind

Cheryl Slomkowski, PhD  @cherylslomphd
July 20, 2017  | Last Updated: July 20, 2017


Retirees often want to remain active after their days of paid employment are behind them. Volunteer work is the activity of choice for a great many of them. It can make one feel productive and helpful, and provide a sense of connection to the community and outside world. Volunteering can also help keep the mind sharp by flexing those cognitive muscles out in the world, in real time, much like exercise will keep the body in tune.

Current research supports this proposition. A recent study of more than 13,000 people 60-plus years of age found that volunteering regularly over a period of 14 years decreased the risk of onset of cognitive impairment. Volunteering included donating time and non-compensated effort in the service of educational, health-related, religious, or other charitable organizations. Cognitive impairment was assessed using a number of standard measures, including tests of immediate and delayed recall (memory), serial 7 subtractions (counting backward from 100 in sevens), and the Telephone Interview for Cognitive Status. This study used the naming (e.g., naming objects) and orientation (e.g., remembering the current date; holding concepts of the calendar date) portions of the test.


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In this study, being female was independently associated with the onset of cognitive impairment, meaning that even taking into account all the other factors that were looked at, such as education, smoking status, or depressive symptoms (among others), women were still at greater risk for deficits in cognitive function. Bear in mind that declines in cognition functioning are not uncommon (it has been estimated that 1 in 5 adults 71 years or older experience deficits in cognitive function), and that women over 50 can be particularly prone to such decline, especially after the onset of menopause. Therefore, it especially would behoove women as they age to be proactive in doing whatever they can to keep their minds stimulated.

It’s worth noting that the association between volunteering later in life and reduction of risk for cognitive impairment has been reported in other studies as well, with emphasis on the benefits that accrue from regular volunteering as opposed to occasional volunteering or none at all. These results, emerging across studies, support a “use it or lose it” theory of aging, particularly in reference to cognitive decline. When it comes to your cognition, you need to “use it” on a regular basis to help prevent losing it.

Given this, it would be important to find volunteer activities that are especially interesting or meaningful in order to sustain regular involvement over time. There are almost limitless options, from healthcare (hospitals, nursing homes) to religious organizations to community services (teaching, libraries). It would be proactive to think through – and try out – different opportunities to figure out where you not only derive satisfaction but also feel most comfortable. Remember, the goal is to find one or more volunteer activities that can become a regular part of your life.

In prior articles I have touted the benefits of keeping the body young through exercise, and the mind via cognitive activities. Similarly, activity that promotes social engagement, like volunteering, can also improve cognitive function or delay impairment. Volunteering offers a golden opportunity for older women to help keep their brains healthy and their mood uplifted while maintaining a connection to the world at large. All this while benefitting others. It’s hard not to view volunteering as win-win-win.


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