One of the activities that research has associated with older adults maintaining or increasing cognitive functioning is formal volunteering. Researchers recently looked at the association of volunteering with cognitive functioning in a large longitudinal study to gain additional insights into which aspects of older adults’ cognition are impacted by volunteering and to see who might receive the greatest cognitive benefit from volunteering.
At the start of this study, just over 30 percent of the 11,110 participants with an average age of 66 were formally volunteering. These individuals were more likely to be married and non-Hispanic, and to have higher education, higher income, better health, fewer depressive symptoms, and higher cognitive functioning. When researchers examined the impact of volunteering over time, they found that volunteering at any number of hours was associated with higher levels of cognitive functioning, compared to not volunteering. When they looked at the demographic factors that might impact the relationship between volunteering and cognitive functioning, they found that the association was stronger for women than men. This analysis also showed that on some measures, individuals with below average levels of education showed greater benefits from volunteering.
Overall, the areas of cognition that were most strongly associated with volunteering were those related to executive processing. Interestingly, the association between volunteering and memory weakened over time, while the association of volunteering with executive processing actually strengthened over time.
More research is needed on why volunteering produces such effects. Some commonly suggested possibilities include the cognitive stimulation, social interaction, and physical activity that can be components of volunteering activities. Research that looks more closely at the effects produced by specific forms of volunteering may clarify this. Overall, these findings clearly suggest the importance of providing volunteer opportunities of interest to older adults, which can benefit both the population being served and the volunteers themselves.