Yes, Volunteering is Rewarding. But Does it Also Protect Against Dementia, as Claimed?

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You're getting older and you've retired from your job. And with all the free time you have, you keep coming across articles advising older folks like yourself to engage in activities to keep their minds sharp.

While we're increasingly finding that the body, in general, is holding up better, allowing Americans to live longer, more and more it's dementia and cognitive decline that's become the looming enemy of the elderly and must be held at bay. But is that possible? And if so, what steps can be taken to do that?

Those same articles urging you to engage your brain recommend doing crossword puzzles, playing board games, submitting to memory-testing challenges and taking adult education classes.

But researchers say there's another way to protect the mind, one which delivers mental, physical and social benefits that games cannot deliver: Becoming a volunteer.

A recent study, attempting to measure the impact of volunteerism on cognitive health, concludes that older adults score higher on cognitive testing when they help others, or work with charitable organizations. Specifically, the findings state that 100 hours of volunteer work per year translates, on average, to a 6% increase in cognitive acuity.

But while that finding might sound encouraging – and no one's making the case that volunteer service isn't, in itself, rewarding – it's hard to take these results as overly meaningful, or causal. That's because of a few things: the study isn't a randomized control trial, it includes data that's self-reported and the 6% difference isn't a significant figure that confers enough of an advantage.

The objective of the study, titled "Impact of volunteering on cognitive decline of the elderly," was to investigate "volunteering participation as a protective factor that can mitigate cognitive decline." And according to the lead author, Sumedha Gupta, it uses "seven waves (1998–2010) of the nationally representative Health and Retirement Study, a study of Americans aged 50 years and older." Researchers also decided to investigate the potential benefits of volunteering, as opposed to other types of activity, because in their view it "is unique in its ability to provide mental, physical and social stimulation simultaneously."

Using a two-part test administered over the phone every two years, known as the Telephone Interview for Cognitive Status (or TICs), the HRS quantified cognitive ability based on a respondent's ability to identify the current date, month, year and names of U.S. President and Vice President. Then, respondents were given a "fluid intelligence" test focusing on other skills, like "delayed word recall" and "serial 7's subtraction" which asked adults to deduct 7 from 100, and then keep subtracting 7 from that result, repeatedly. No time limit was imposed on the respondent to answer. 

Data from respondents in the HRS was separated into three groups: those who said they were committed volunteers, those who did not volunteer, and those who volunteered on and off. And researchers said they discovered (see chart) that committed volunteers, regardless of age, scored higher on TICs, which they said showed that the "study provides the first causal evidence of a favorable impact of pro-social behavior on individual (cognitive) health."

As for what constituted volunteering, here's how the paper's authors defined it: "Volunteering is measured as the sum of hours spent in the past 12 months 'doing volunteer work for religious, educational, health-related or other charitable organizations' (formal volunteering) and 'helping friends, neighbors, or relatives who did not live with you and did not pay you for the help' (informal volunteering)."

While it appears that active and continued volunteering keeps one sharper than those in the other groups, the research, since it's self-reported, cannot concretely support that conclusion. What if respondents exaggerated their participation? There's no way to know for sure, which is why the paper lists this as the study's second limitation, behind the primary one of it not being a randomized control trial.

"Second, the assessment of volunteering in the HRS does not permit investigation of the mechanism through which volunteering has a protective effect on cognitive ability," the researchers state. "More information on the nature of volunteering activity, for instance, whether it evokes mental, physical and/or social engagement would help understand exactly how volunteering mitigates cognitive decline."

Volunteering is a productive activity that benefits both those who give and receive. But can we really say it also serves as a protective measure against cognitive decline? While it certainly cannot hurt, it appears hard to say that you can count on it to help.