Research

Maybe You Can Slow Cognitive Decline

After decades of study devoted to describing the negative effects of dementia, a new generation of researchers is pursuing a more encouraging line of inquiry: finding ways that seniors can slow the inevitable decline.

One vein of this research, still in its infancy, considers whether seniors could reduce the risk of dementia if they engage in volunteer work. Several studies focus on volunteering, because most of the population with the greatest risk of dementia – people over age 65 – is no longer working.

There’s no suggestion that volunteering can prevent dementia. However, one new study, by Swedish and European researchers, found that Swedes between 65 and 69 who volunteer had a “significant decrease in cognitive complaints,” compared with the non-volunteers. The seniors answered a survey questionnaire at the beginning and end of the 5-year study that gauged whether they had experienced any changes in each of four complaints: “problems concentrating,” “difficulty making decisions,” “difficulty remembering,” and “difficulty thinking clearly.”

The study didn’t go so far as to claim that volunteering actually caused the improvements either. But it highlighted how volunteering might reduce the symptoms, possibly because it keeps older people more physically and mentally fit.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg's headshot

Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

Indeed, the cognitive benefits of exercise have been understood for so long that they’ve become a perennial topic in the mainstream media. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 85, has become the poster child for elderly exercisers, with a personal trainer overseeing her push-ups and turns on an elliptical machine in a CNN Films documentary, “RBG.”

The research confirms that she’s doing what she needs to do to stay sharp for her beloved job: aerobic exercise in particular protects seniors’ brain matter from deterioration; weight training and stretching exercises do not.

A research team’s 2014 review of 73 prior studies on volunteer work found multiple benefits: “volunteering in later life is associated with significant psychosocial, physical, cognitive, and functional benefits for healthy older adults.” The paper, which appeared in the Psychological Bulletin of the American Psychological Association, defined psychosocial well-being as having greater life satisfaction, higher executive function, being happier and having a robust social network.

One caveat in the meta-analysis is that getting the cognitive benefits from volunteer work will depend, in part, on “a feeling that one’s work is being appreciated.”

Age-related decline cannot be stopped – at least not yet. But a growing body of research provides hope that people can someday blunt its effects on their lives.

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6 Responses to Maybe You Can Slow Cognitive Decline

  1. Ellis says:

    Perhaps the reason that people who volunteer have the best “psychosocial, physical, cognitive, and functional benefits” is because that is the population that is most likely to volunteer in the first place.

    • Kim Blanton says:

      Ellis – you raise a good point when talking about this – or any – research.

      While there is certainly a chicken and egg issue here, the American Psychological Association paper you cited was a fairly comprehensive study of dozens of different researchers’ work, and some (not all) of the techniques they used were aimed at minimizing this problem.

      Thanks for reading the blog!
      Kim (blogger )

  2. I’m not surprised volunteering would be beneficial to prevent cognitive decline. It involves interpersonal and problem solving skills and a certain ‘feel good’ component.

    We recently read The Alzheimer’s Solution by Dean and Ayesha Sherzai. The Sherzais are neurologists with expertise in aging and neurodegenerative disorders as well as preventive medicine. They created the NEURO plan signifying Nutrition, Exercise, Unwind, Restorative Sleep and Optimize. It dovetails with this research.

    We’re heartened to see reseachers looking for lifestyle changes beyond just medication, and recommend the Sherzai book.

  3. PJ says:

    Having responsibilities as well as perhaps some appreciation from others could informally certainly make a difference in one’s mental cognition.

  4. Les says:

    I’ve been retired 6 years. The first year, I was lost. Then, I started volunteering at my local hospital. The lack of direction and brain fog I felt that first year is gone. I feel a renewed purpose in life and look forward to my “work” at the hospital. Count me as a true believer in the benefits of volunteering.

  5. Bob K says:

    Having grandchildren nearly everyday can also have a positive impact. This kind of interaction is more like the family groups that were ascendant until the 1970s and after. Families moving apart and isolation of the elders likely has a significant impact on “brain fog” and sliding into dementia.

    Good genes also help.