Seniors who volunteer less likely to develop dementia, study suggests

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Volunteering generates lots of warm feelings, but for retired seniors it could also help stave off dementia.

A study led by University of Calgary psychology professor Yannick Griep looked at 1,000 Swedish seniors and found those who regularly volunteered were much less likely to get dementia.

“It turns out that getting everything but the paycheque is actually what makes you more healthy and makes you more happy about your life,” Griep told the Calgary Eyeopener.

The five-year study divided the seniors, who all retired in 2010, into three groups: those who regularly volunteered for at least an hour each week, those who sporadically volunteered and those who didn’t volunteer at all.

Researchers looked at the results of regular questionnaires and doctors’ notes to assess the results, which were published in the medical journal PLOS ONE.

The benefits of a job

Those who regularly volunteered for at least an hour a week were 2.4 times less likely to develop dementia compared to the ones who didn’t volunteer.

“It’s very hard to say why,” said Griep. “There are a bunch of reasons why people can develop dementia. The only thing we know from this study is that if you do voluntary work it will reduce the likelihood of developing the disease. Why, we don’t know. What the exact underlying mechanism is, we were unable to untangle.”


University of Calgary psychology professor Yannick Griep. (CBC)

Volunteering offers social, cognitive and physical benefits, he said.

“We are arguing that the combination of these three make it a really great activity to engage in.”

The study controlled for certain factors, such as the size of the senior’s social circle, any health concerns and doing physical activities like sports or walks.

“After controlling for all those things, above and beyond, doing the voluntary work still reduced the likelihood of being diagnosed with dementia,” he said.

Must be a regular gig

Curiously, the middle group, those who volunteered sporadically, didn’t see the same benefits as those who volunteered regularly. That’s why Griep says regular volunteering has the benefits of a paying job, such as structure to the day and a widened social circle.

The results were strong enough that Griep encouraged his mother to volunteer in her retirement.

“My own mother recently retired two years ago and she took up voluntary work,” he said. “So I am very proud that she is doing this. She is actually doing what I would recommend, doing one hour of voluntary work a week when you retire.”

The next step for Griep is to figure out that underlying mechanism and he’s planning on examining existing long-term data about Canadians through his work at the U of C.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener

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Seniors who volunteer less likely to develop dementia, study suggests

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