The phrase “use it or lose it” has been uttered for years to humorously explain the physical and mental decline that can occur when individuals stop exercising and regularly engaging their mental faculties—especially in older age. Now recent research has expanded this umbrella to encompass the effects of inactivity related to working life as well. Specifically, recent research on volunteerism in older adults suggests that engaging regularly in volunteer work may be one way to not “lose it” cognitively later in life.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2013 that approximately 24 percent of people 65 or better volunteer regularly to some degree. What’s more, volunteer contributions have a substantive impact of the US economy, translating to around $19 billion in volunteer revenue generation in 2013.
Clearly, older adults play an important role in contributing to the US economy. But beyond economic reasons for volunteerism, research has found several important implications for personal or individual benefit. Specifically, in an extensive review article, the authors stated that there is growing evidence to support the notion that older adults who volunteer are less likely to experience cognitive declines, and that volunteering may protect against dementia. For example, one study cited in the article suggested that engaging in a wide variety of activities, regardless of how cognitively taxing, was found to be associated with a decreased risk of later memory loss.
In essence, any activities that work to reduce stress, bolster self-esteem, and foster overall satisfaction and happiness help mitigate the debilitating effects that neurotoxins can have on the human brain over a lifetime. What’s more, above and beyond the standard social and cognitive stimulation that can come from engaging in work, volunteerism differs from other jobs in that it often has an added altruistic component. As such, it has been suggested that this genre of “helping-related” activities may provide additional health benefits above and beyond jobs that do not have a helping component to them.
As researchers begin to delve more into the study of older adults, so will the literature and knowledge surrounding volunteerism in older populations begin to grow. Nonetheless, what appears to already be clear at this juncture is that retirement need not (and should not) be a retirement from everything. There is still much to be gained to later years through the act of giving.
Anderson ND, Kroger E, Dawson DR, et al. The benefits associated with volunteering among seniors: A critical review and recommendations for future research. Psychological Bulletin (2014); 140: 1505–1533.