Sunday, 10 Dec 2023

Volunteering in later life could prevent memory loss and dementia

Dr Hilary lists the early symptoms of dementia

As we get older – especially during retirement – keeping our brains active becomes even more important.

Even if someone is not affected by dementia later on in life, it is common to experience some memory issues.

Therefore, many health bodies recommend ways to keep the mind active with activities such as reading, crosswords and playing musical instruments.

But a new study has revealed that volunteering when older is associated with better brain function and memory.

The research, conducted by a team from the University of California Davis, found that volunteer activities allowed older adults to be more physically active, increase their social interaction and provide cognitive stimulation that may protect the brain.

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Volunteer activities included supporting educational, religious, health-related or other charitable organisations.

Findings were presented yesterday (July 20) at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2023 in Amsterdam.

Donna McCullough, the Alzheimer’s Association chief mission and field operations officer, said: “We hope these new data encourage individuals of all ages and backgrounds to engage in local volunteering — not only to benefit their communities, but potentially their own cognitive and brain health.”

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As part of the research, the volunteering habits of a diverse group of 2,476 older adults were examined.

The study group had an average age of 74 and included black, white, Asian and Latino participants.

Of them, a total of 1,167 (43 percent) of the participants reported volunteering in the past year.

Those who volunteered had better baseline scores on tests of executive function and verbal episodic memory even after adjusting for age, sex, education, income, practice effects and interview mode (phone versus in-person).

People who volunteered several times a week had the highest levels of executive function.

Yi Lor, an epidemiology doctoral student at the university, explained: “Volunteering may be important for better cognition in late life and could serve as a simple intervention in all older adults to protect against risk for Alzheimer’s disease and associated dementias.

“Our next steps are to examine whether volunteering is protective against cognitive impairment, and how physical and mental health may impact this relationship.”

In the follow-up period of 1.2 years volunteering was also associated with less cognitive decline.

The study’s principal investigator Rachel Whitmer said: “You’re not in control of your family history or age — you can’t turn back the clock. But you are in control of how you spend your day and life.

“Volunteering is about keeping your brain active. It’s also about socialising, which keeps you engaged and happy, and potentially lowers stress.”

Common signs of dementia include:

  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Finding it hard to carry out familiar daily tasks, such as getting confused over the correct Change when shopping
  • Struggling to follow a conversation or find the right word
  • Being confused about time and place
  • Mood changes.

If you or someone you know is displaying symptoms you should speak to a doctor.

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