Volunteer Work Is Good for Your Brain

benefits of volunteering

Story at-a-glance -

  • Volunteer work is unique in that it often involves social, physical and cognitive dimensions, and research has shown that retired seniors who engage in activities that require moderate effort in two or more of these dimensions slash their risk of dementia by 47 percent
  • In individuals aged 60 and over, volunteering regularly decreased the risk of cognitive impairment over a 14-year period
  • Taking part in volunteer work “significantly forestalls” the progress of cognitive decline in people aged 60 years and older
  • Volunteering may lead to increases in volume in brain regions such as the hippocampus, which is involved in memory, as opposed to the declines in volume typically seen with age

By Dr. Mercola

Only about 25 percent of Americans volunteer,1 despite the fact that doing good for others stands to benefit everyone involved. Volunteer work is unique in that it often involves social, physical and cognitive dimensions, and research has shown that retired seniors who engage in activities that require moderate effort in two or more of these dimensions slash their risk of dementia by 47 percent.2

“An active and socially integrated lifestyle in late life protects against dementia and AD [Alzheimer’s disease],” the researchers wrote,3 and volunteering is one way to achieve this. Since volunteers are needed in a seemingly endless variety of organizations, from animal shelters and schools to food pantries and youth services, there’s a volunteer opportunity to appeal to virtually everyone. It costs you nothing, save for some time, and while giving back to those around you you’ll reap impressive benefits to your brain.

Volunteering Lowers Your Risk of Cognitive Impairment and Decline

The brain benefits of volunteering are so great that researchers writing in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society suggested doctors should start writing their senior patients prescriptions for volunteer work. They found that in individuals aged 60 and over, volunteering regularly decreased the risk of cognitive impairment over a 14-year period:4

“Consistent civic engagement in old age is associated with lower risk of cognitive impairment and provides impetus for interventions to protect against the onset of cognitive impairment. Given the increasing number of baby boomers entering old age, the findings support the public health benefits of volunteering and the potential role of geriatricians, who can promote volunteering by incorporating ‘prescriptions to volunteer’ into their patient care.”

Separate research published in The Journal of the Economics of Ageing similarly revealed that taking part in volunteer work “significantly forestalls” the progress of cognitive decline in people aged 60 years and older.5 "Volunteering is a pathway through which you can increase brain activity," Michelle Carlson, associate professor in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told AARP.6 Carlson co-wrote a small study of older women who were at high risk of cognitive decline.

They engaged in volunteer work 15 hours a week for six months, assisting elementary school teachers with children’s literacy and academic achievement. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), it was shown the women had increases in brain activity in areas involved in executive functions, along with behavioral improvements to match.7

Volunteering may even lead to increases in volume in brain regions such as the hippocampus, which is involved in memory, as opposed to the declines in volume typically seen with age. One study published in Alzheimer’s and Dementia, for instance, revealed that men and women who volunteered for two years had increases in brain volume of up to 1.6 percent and 0.54 percent, respectively, while those in a control group experienced declines in volume.

“These findings showed that purposeful activity embedded within a social health promotion program halted and, in men, reversed declines in brain volume in regions vulnerable to dementia,” the researchers concluded.8 What’s more, the longer the volunteering took place, the greater the brain benefits appeared to be.

Volunteering May Buffer Daily Stress, Benefit Your Heart

Exactly how volunteering helps brain health remains to be seen, although it’s been suggested that the social element of helping others, along with the stimulation of learning new things, could be factors.9 It’s also quite possible that the brain benefits stem, at least in part, from other bodywide benefits that volunteering offers. Volunteering can lower your risk of depression and anxiety10 and even boost your psychological well-being.11

Volunteering to help others can even lead to a so-called "helper's high," which may occur because doing good releases feel-good hormones like oxytocin in your body while lowering levels of stress hormones like cortisol. When researchers tested the buffering role of daily volunteer work on stress levels, it was found that salivary cortisol levels were lower on days when participants volunteered compared to days they did not, offering legitimate stress-buffering effects. Researchers wrote in Social Science & Medicine:12

“Our findings are suggestive of a unique, but unobserved, neurobiological mechanism underlying the link between volunteering and better health. Volunteer programs designed to help others in need may be considered as an intervention strategy for individuals living under stressful conditions.”

Research from Carnegie Mellon University further revealed that people who volunteered for at least 200 hours a year were 40 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure than those who did not.13 The type of volunteer work appeared to be irrelevant. Rather, it was the amount of time spent doing it that mattered. Indeed, social interaction, and the stress relief it can provide, is likely one major reason why volunteering has a beneficial effect on blood pressure, as it's a well-known fact that stress elevates blood pressure.

The study’s lead author, Rodlescia Sneed, also pointed to social interactions as a key reason why volunteering is so beneficial, noting in a press release:14

"As people get older, social transitions like retirement, bereavement and the departure of children from the home often leave older adults with fewer natural opportunities for social interaction … Participating in volunteer activities may provide older adults with social connections that they might not have otherwise. There is strong evidence that having good social connections promotes healthy aging and reduces risk for a number of negative health outcomes."

Impressive, Whole-Body Benefits of Volunteering

Volunteering’s many benefits are not limited to one area of the body like your brain or your heart but rather appear to extend bodywide. Volunteerism is linked to lower all-cause mortality in older adults,15 for instance, and additional benefits such as the following have also been noted:16

  • Greater life satisfaction
  • Greater self-esteem
  • Increased personal control
  • Fewer depressive symptoms
  • Delaying the onset of functional limitations that predict psychological distress among older adults

Physical activity is another area where volunteering shines, as many types of volunteer work require moderate physical exertion. People who volunteer have been found to be more physically active than those who do not,17 while “the simple act of walking to and from a volunteer site may promote increased activity among otherwise sedentary individuals,” researchers wrote in Psychology and Aging.18

In fact, when older adults in fair health engaged in intensive volunteering in an elementary school for 15 hours or more each week, continuing for the full duration of the school year, they reported a number of physical improvements, including improved stair-climbing speed and increased walking speed.19 Even people with chronic or serious illnesses stand to benefit from volunteering.

According to a report by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a U.S. agency that helps Americans help others through service, people suffering from chronic pain had reductions in pain intensity and disability when they volunteered to help others with chronic pain.20 "Making a connection" and "a sense of purpose” were two themes that emerged during the study, suggesting that these are primary reasons why volunteering proves to be so rewarding to volunteers.

In another study, people who volunteered following a heart attack reported reductions in despair and depression, which are linked to an increased risk of mortality, along with a greater sense of purpose.21 Research has even shown that states with a high volunteer rate have lower rates of mortality and incidences of heart disease.22 According to CNCS:23

“While these studies may differ in terms of their specific findings, they consistently demonstrate that there is a significant relationship between volunteering and good health; when individuals volunteer, they not only help their community but also experience better health in later years, whether in terms of greater longevity, higher functional ability or lower rates of depression.”

Meeting the ‘Volunteering Threshold’

It’s unclear exactly how much volunteer work is necessary to reap its physical and mental rewards. However, some findings indicated that volunteering for about 100 hours a year may offer the greatest health advantages, and CNCS states that “it is not the case that the more an individual volunteers, the greater the health benefits.” Instead, they suggest there is a “volunteer threshold” that must be met — volunteering at least one or two hours a week — and after that no additional health benefits are gained from volunteering more.

That being said, another study found that volunteering 40 hours or less per year, or volunteering for just one organization (as opposed to two or more), led to the lowest risk of mortality,24 while others have suggested that volunteering too much may overwhelm an individual, with negative health consequences.

In addition, older volunteers may stand to gain the greatest health benefits compared to younger volunteers, possibly because in the case of seniors, volunteering may provide important ties to the community along with a sense of purpose.25

Still other research suggests that while volunteering regularly is associated with higher levels of mental well-being, this isn’t apparent until age 40 and beyond.26 Ultimately, if you’re considering volunteering, you should choose a cause that matters to you and invest as much time as you comfortably can. If you start to feel stressed by the obligation to volunteer, it may be a sign you’ve committed too much time.

Volunteering should leave you feeling good about your accomplishments and excited to continue your contribution. Ideally, for the greatest health, mental and emotional gains, especially as they pertain to your brain, seek out volunteer opportunities that provide opportunity for social connection and mental stimulation, and which help you to feel a sense of purpose, such as tutoring.

On the other hand, volunteer work that requires more physical activity, such as gardening, can increase your weekly activity, offering another set of benefits. And while you’re at it, be sure you keep a positive attitude and are volunteering for the right reasons. It’s possible, and has been shown by at least one study, that motives for volunteering matter, and people who volunteer for altruistic reasons enjoy increased longevity, whereas those who do so for more selfish reasons do not.27

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