Volunteering Benefits Your Brain | Alzheimer's Prevention Registry

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January 20, 2016

Volunteering Benefits Your Brain

By Alzheimer's Prevention Bulletin


Do Good and Do Well, too!

Did you begin 2016 with a resolution? Approximately half of Americans make New Year’s resolutions but only about 8 percent keep them. One of the 10 most popular – volunteering to help others achieve their dreams – may also benefit the brains of those giving their time, according to a recent study conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The study involved 702 retired men and women, 352 were trained to serve as Baltimore Experience Corps volunteer mentors. They worked in libraries at Baltimore City Public Schools, helping young children learn to read. The remaining 350 study participants – control group members – were not involved in Baltimore Experience Corps. 

Give and You Receive

Within this larger study, researchers also conducted a “nested study” (a study within a study). This involved 111 of the research participants, 58 from the Baltimore Experience Corps group and 53 from the control group. These people underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans – an exam that uses a magnetic field and radio waves to produce detailed brain images – and memory tests at scheduled points during the research. 

“We expected the brains of study participants to shrink as part of the normal aging process,” said Michelle Carlson, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Mental Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Core Faculty at Johns Hopkins Center on Aging and Health. “Instead, after two years in a program that involved them in meaningful, social activity, their memory centers either maintained their size or grew modestly.”

The research revealed the following about each of the study’s populations:

  •   Men Enrolled in Baltimore Experience Corps – This group experienced the greatest increase in brain volumes over the two-year study.
  •   Women Enrolled in Baltimore Experience Corps – Women showed modest gains in brain volumes, but they also began the study in generally poorer physical condition than the men. By the study’s end, women had made the most significant improvements in physical activity. Dr. Carlson noted this could lead to future increases in brain volume and improved executive function among the women.
  •   Control Group Members – This group showed typical age-related shrinkage in brain volumes. 

The Magic Mix

Additional research is needed to determine which aspects of Baltimore Experience Corps increased brain volume and improved memories. The program involved participants in many activities – physical, intellectual and social – in which they would not have otherwise been engaged, including:

  •   Working in teams
  •   Problem solving
  •   Walking throughout the day
  •   Sharing their knowledge

“We learned that activity with a purpose may benefit cognitive function and memory in older adults,” Dr. Carlson said. “The magic ingredient seemed to be getting out of your home and getting out with a purpose.”