Do Volunteers Just Have Higher Cognitive Function or Is Volunteering Good For Brain Health?

Volunteers play an important role – they help many of our nations’ non-profits address critical missions and address a variety of unmet needs for under-privileged members of our society. In fact, in 2019, Independent Sector estimated that the average value of volunteer work is worth more than $25/hour, and with an estimated 63 million Americans collectively volunteering about 8 billion hours in the last year, volunteer talent is one of our nation’s greatest assets.

Although the primary goal for volunteers is related to giving back and helping others, several decades of research has shown that volunteers also experience significant benefits themselves. People who regularly volunteer tend to be healthier, happier, and live longer lives. However, volunteering is not only beneficial to physical health, it also is beneficial for cognitive function. Loss of cognitive function is the primary factor that leads people to need nursing home level care. If volunteering can help delay or avoid onset of cognitive losses in later life, increasing participation in volunteering could have a significant impact not only one the quality of lives of older adults, but also on our healthcare system! 

Despite the potential of volunteering for cognitive function, there is currently insufficient evidence about how volunteering attenuates cognitive losses. Researchers like us are seeking to uncover what aspects of volunteering are beneficial. However, a obstacle has prevented development of volunteer-based cognitive interventions. Many researchers like us have been skeptical about how much of the benefits observed are related to volunteering itself. Rather, the benefits could be because of the unique selection of people who engage in it. That is, people who volunteer may be systematically different from non-volunteers, and these selective differences, rather than volunteering itself, could explain why volunteers have higher cognitive function than non-volunteers. This particular puzzle – the selection effects of volunteering – has been a key area of interest for the two of us because it stands in the way of developing effective volunteer interventions for older adults to maintain their health.

Using statistical models that allow us to account for the factors that differentiate the kinds of people who volunteer from those who do not, we have been able to determine what proportion of the effect of volunteering is due to volunteering itself versus the selective differences between the kinds of people who volunteer and those who don’t. We examined a variety of aspects of cognitive function, and we discovered that – although selection into volunteering (i.e. the unique characteristics of volunteers compared to non-volunteers) accounted for 5% – 30% of the relationship between volunteering and cognitive function – volunteering itself explained between 70% and 95% of the cognitive benefits.

Specifically, in our paper, which appeared in the October, 2020 issue of the Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences, establishes that although some of the benefits observed for volunteering are explained by selective differences in the characteristics of volunteers and non-volunteers, the majority of the cognitive benefits observed are due to volunteering itself. The proportion of the beneficial effects observed depend on the amount of time individuals volunteer per year on average, but overall, those who volunteer are deriving significant cognitive health benefits from doing so.

These findings are important – they show that volunteer interventions could have the kind of beneficial effects that we often think of only being provided by taking beneficial pharmaceutical drugs or exercising a lot. In fact, our findings suggest that volunteering could very well be even more beneficial than most other behaviors that we generally think of as important to staying healthy.  Although this publication does not definitively show how much benefit we can expect to derive from volunteering, it shows that it is time to take the next step in developing interventions. Next, we need to figure out which aspects of volunteering make it so beneficial so we can develop volunteer jobs that not only help make society better off, but also increase the number of years people can expect to maintain their cognitive health! 

Dr. Kail is an associate professor of sociology and an affiliate member of the Gerontology Institute at Georgia State University. You can learn more about Dr. Kail’s research here, and you can connect with Dr. Kail on LinkedIn.

Dr. Carr is an associate professor of sociology. You can learn more about Dr. Carr’s research here, and you can connect with Dr. Carr on LinkedIn here.

The feature image is from Pexels.

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