New research shows that volunteering can help keep older adults’ minds sharp

Posted by Sheena Rice,

Volunteering may improve cognitive function of older adults, especially for women and those with lower levels of education.

While the links of volunteering to physical health are well known, its associations with mental functioning are less clear.

“Cognitive functions, such as memory, working memory, and processing are essential for living an independent life,” says Christine Proulx, an associate professor of human development and family science department at the University of Missouri.

“They’re the tools and methods the brain uses to process information. It’s the brain’s working memory and processing capacity that benefit the most from volunteering.”

Processing is how fast the mind is able to take in and store information. Working memory, which is different from long-term memory, is what the brain needs to temporarily store and manage information.

Proulx used national data from the Health and Retirement Study, which researchers have collected for the past 25 years. The results from more than 11,000 adults aged 51 and older show significant associations between cognitive function and volunteering among all participants, regardless of the amount of time spent. Adults with lower levels of education and women seemed to benefit the most.

“Prior research has shown that older adults with lower levels of education are at greater risk of cognitive decline,” Proulx says. “Engaging in volunteering might compensate for some of that risk.”

Benefits may come because volunteering stimulates the brain, Proulx says. When volunteering an individual must follow directions, solve problems, and be active, all of which engage the mind’s working memory and processing.


Bottom Line for Mentoring Programs

The benefits youth receive in becoming a mentee have been an ongoing topic of study. However, it is all too easy to forget that no relationship is ever a one-way street. Benefits gained from the mentoring relationship can travel in both directions.

For mentoring programs seeking to add another component to their volunteer recruitment outreach among older adults, it may be helpful to emphasize the fact that everyone engaged in the mentoring relationship can stand to benefit.


To access the original research, click here.