By Dr. Nora DeVoe, Ph.D.
Geriatric Care Manager


Consider Volunteering: Your Brain May Benefit

There are a number of studies that suggest staying social may benefit your emotional well-being and neurological health as you age. Finding a sense of purpose is also important. One study found that older adults who reported having a sense of purpose and direction in life tend to live longer than their peers. Volunteering can bring these elements together. Volunteering in your local community engages you socially, helping to combat depression and isolation if you live alone. It may enable you to continue utilizing knowledge you have gained across decades, as well as skills that depend on memory. You also gain a sense that others need you in your community, as well as broadening your horizons by engaging in new experiences.

Maintaining physical function is one of the keys to successful aging. Limiting disability and preserving mobility is vital to help reduce mortality among seniors. Volunteering may help because it keeps you active.

Another study found that older adults who volunteered for up to 100 hours per year (about 2 hours per week) experienced a reduction in the extent to which chronic conditions such as arthritis affected functional abilities like walking a block, climbing a flight of stairs, stooping or kneeling, picking a dime up off the ground, and lifting or carrying 10 pounds. Volunteering for 100 hours or more was associated with fewer subsequent functional limitations.

Think about things you enjoy when it comes to identifying volunteer opportunities. If you are passionate about a cause, such as the environment, seek out options in that field. Alternatively, perhaps you might want to work with the homeless, with other seniors, or with animals. Also, think about whether you have specific professional experience you can utilize. For example, you might be a retired teacher who can help children practice their reading at a local school, an attorney who can provide legal advice to a non-profit organization, or an accountant who can help a charity or your place of worship with financial matters. Do you want to be outside and physically active, or office-based? Are you open to trying a range of tasks, or do you prefer a single responsibility?

It is important to set realistic limits on volunteering. Your health benefits may depend on a moderate level of volunteering, but the "sweet spot" appears to be about 100 annual hours. Previously you may have worked long hours, but this might not work for volunteering. Start small, and take it from there.

Research also shows that your brain health may benefit from an overall healthy lifestyle that helps to control cardiovascular risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity. Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats, and try to limit your intake of refined grains and saturated fat. Exercise is key too- the strongest evidence that you may be able to preserve your brainpower as you age centers on the benefits of exercise. Aim to get at least 30 minutes of brisk exercise at least three days per week (preferably everyday), also engage in strength training exercises with weights or resistance bands.

So consider volunteering as another format to helping you and your brain age well, and stay busy, active and social.

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Nora DeVoe is a Gerontologist specializing in Eldercare and Caregiver issues. She may be reached at (716) 667-7299.  

Dr. Nora is a ....