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by Michele Shapiro
Updated August 19, 2022
It makes you happy, reduces your stress and just plain feels good. But volunteering has another big thing going for it: It's good your brainpower.
In a 2015 study from the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, MRI scans and tests of brain function showed that older people who volunteered their time at an elementary school over the academic year experienced improvements in parts of the brain vulnerable to age-related declines. For the men in the study, volunteering even plumped up brain volume.
“Volunteering led to increases in the size of the hippocampus and brain volume generally, [which are] indirect measures of brain power,” says Michelle C. Carlson, a Johns Hopkins investigator who led the study. “The larger those regions are, the more likely they are to show resilience against brain pathology.” The research is part of the Baltimore Experience Corps Study, which started in 1998 and recruited adults 60 and older to help children in urban public schools with reading and other learning challenges. (The study ended in 2012, but the volunteer program continues today.)
Researchers involved in the study have previously shown that volunteers who were at high risk for problems with memory and thinking skills had significant gains in their brains’ executive function, which helps people plan, reason and organize. That suggests, Carlson says, that the brain is “plastic” and can change for the better if given the right measures, staving off the worst effects of brain aging.
How being of service fortifies the brain is still something of a mystery, but there are strong clues. “Volunteering provides multiple pathways to benefits,” Carlson says. For one thing, being a volunteer typically puts you in the company of others, expanding your social world — a proven brain builder. In fact, a report from the Global Council on Brain Health found that strong social networks have a powerful impact on brain health, enhancing many cognitive functions.
The brain scans of volunteers in the Baltimore study bore that out. “We saw changes in the prefrontal lobes, which relate to complex social interactions,” Carlson says. “From the standpoint of evolution, we’re designed to want to help others. In helping others, we help ourselves.”
Volunteering can also enhance your belief that your life has meaning, which also powers and protects the mind. Research from the Rush University Medical Center showed that having a strong sense of purpose was linked to a lower risk for silent brain strokes due to blood clots, which can harm brain function as we age.
“We hypothesized that being purposeful and generative — that is, giving back — to younger generations was the fuel that motivated people to be engaged consistently over a long period of time,” Carlson says.
In fact, older adults, particularly those who are retired, often find new meaning — and mental stimulation — by helping others. “The need to be needed is what keeps you moving and motivates you to act,” Carlson says. “It appears to help feed the brain in ways we don’t understand yet.”
There are many ways to share your time and wisdom and keep your mind strong. “Aging adults have a lot of wisdom to give back,” Carlson says.
• “Impact of the Baltimore Experience Corps Trial on cortical and hippocampal volumes,” Alzheimer’s & Dementia, March 2015. This study evaluated the effects of a community volunteer program called Experience Corps (EC) on brain volumes. The study included 111 participants (average age, 67) who were randomly assigned to either the EC group or to a control group that didn’t take part in the program. MRI scans were done on the participants at the beginning of the study and at one- and two-year follow-up visits. Men in the EC group had volume increases in the cortex and the hippocampus regions of their brain, while those who didn’t take part in the group had declines in size over the two-year study period. Women in the study didn’t show the same improvements. The gain in men correlated to about a three-year reversal in brain aging. The study didn’t assess the individual effects of cognitive, social, and physical activity on brain volume. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• “Purpose in Life and Cerebral Infarcts in Community-Dwelling Older People,” Stroke, March 2015. This study included 453 people who were part of the Rush Memory and Aging Project, a study of aging and dementia. Each year, participants answered questions related to their purpose in life. After their death, their brains were analyzed for tiny strokes called microinfarcts. Every one-unit increase in purpose in life score reduced the odds of having one or more tiny infarcts by around 50 percent, even after the researchers had taken into consideration other risk factors, such as body mass index, smoking, and high blood pressure. The authors note that participants in this study were older and more educated than the general population, which could have affected the results. Read the full study.