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Another Benefit of Volunteering: It Can Reduce Risk of Dementia

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There is a long list of benefits to being a volunteer as we age. Volunteers stay more active. They derive great satisfaction from giving back to the organizations they care about.  Volunteers generally report having a deeper sense of purpose in life. And now here’s another reason you may have never expected: regular volunteering can actually reduce your risk of developing dementia.

That’s the remarkable conclusion from a recent study conducted by the University of Calgary. We read about this groundbreaking research in this article on the website MedicalXpress (although it was also published in several newspapers, magazines and websites). The study tracked 1,001 Swedish citizens who had retired in 2010. These subjects were studied for a five-year period as researchers checked for any signs of cognitive impairment. Using personal questionnaires along with the reports from doctors, the cognitive health of all the survey subjects was evaluated in 2010, 2012 and 2014, analyzing memory, powers of concentration, and decision-making abilities.

In order to evaluate the effects of volunteering on mental health, researchers divided the subjects into three groups based on how engaged they were in volunteering.  As the article describes it, “One group is made up of individuals who consistently volunteered in their respective communities for at least one hour per week. The second group consists of those who sporadically engaged in volunteering. In the third group are retired workers who never engaged in volunteering.” The results were striking.

University of Calgary psychology professor Yannick Griep, author of the study, reported the findings. “We found that the people who did volunteer work for at least one hour a week on a regular basis were 2.44 times less likely to develop dementia than the seniors who didn’t volunteer,” he said.  What’s more, the researchers found that those who only volunteered sporadically derived no particular benefit. “For this group, there are no differences than with the group that never volunteered,” Professor Griep reported.

Just to clarify the definition, the study authors defined “volunteer work” as something we do purely of our own free will, and for no financial compensation.  The activity has to benefit others – people outside of our core family.  Common places people volunteer range all over the board, from churches to seniors centers, from libraries to schools, from homeless shelters to outdoor camps. No matter where we live, there are opportunities galore to put our skills to work on a volunteer basis. The question is, why does regular volunteering have a positive impact on our cognitive health?

One reason suggested by the researchers is that regular volunteering brings with it “the latent benefits of work.” This may also help explain why sporadic volunteers never experience the same benefits of the “regulars” – they never settle into a regular schedule. “Work has many benefits beyond just a paycheck,” theorizes Professor Griep. “It brings a structure to the day…(and) it offers social contact with people outside of our family.” Regular volunteering also carries with it a social status, often even a job title, that is analogous to a regular job, combined with the sense that we’re making a meaningful contribution to society.” Being a regular volunteer also gets people up and moving, which doctors know helps mitigate cognitive decline.

Finally, the article alludes to something we’ve read about in multiple articles: the more you use your mind in social settings, the better your cognitive health. In the words of the the MedicalXpress article, “those in the regular volunteering camp stay sharper cognitively because they are continuing to engage their minds in these key ways.” Talking with others, solving problems, and learning new skills are all excellent ways to stay mentally sharper longer.  That’s why the scientists from the University of Calgary strongly recommend that retired seniors do volunteer work at least once a week. “As a senior,” says Professor Griep, “your risk of dementia goes up substantially every year. Anything you can do that’s low cost and easy to implement that will reduce the likelihood of developing dementia is invaluable.”

So if you’re retired or about to retire, planning how to spend your newly-rediscovered free time, the lesson from this article is clear: devote regular time to giving back through volunteerism. If you’re the adult child of a retiree, urge your loved one to get out of the house or apartment and reengage through volunteering. And when it comes to planning all the other aspects of retirement, AgingOptions can help you with the power of a LifePlan – a comprehensive plan that weaves together all the vital elements you must include in your plan for the future. A LifePlan is a seamless strategy linking your financial, legal, medical, and housing plans, and including an essential element often overlooked: a family communications plan to make certain your loved ones understand and support your wishes.

The next step is up to you: invest a few hours and discover just how powerful a LifePlan can be. We offer free LifePlanning Seminars at locations throughout the region, and we invite you to attend. You’ll come away with a wealth of valuable information and a clear understanding of the next steps. For dates, times and online registration click here, or call us during the week. It will be a pleasure to meet you at an AgingOptions LifePlanning Seminar soon.

(originally reported at




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