Pensioners who spend just one hour a week volunteering in their local community could significantly reduce their risk of developing dementia. A study carried out by Calgary University found that those who volunteered regularly saw the chances drop to 2.44 times less likely.
Yannick Griep, a professor in psychology, led a team that tracked 1,001 people who all retired in 2010. They looked at the development of cognitive problems in each individual over a five-year period. The pensioners were split into three groups depending on the amount of volunteer work they carried out.
The first group was made up of those who consistently spent one hour or more a week volunteering. The second set was more sporadic in their approach to helping out in their community, while the final faction didn’t engage in volunteering at all.
Monitoring at regular intervals over the years was done through questionnaires and diagnoses from physicians in relation to the subjects’ cognitive capacities. Dementia affects a number of factors, including memory, the ability to concentrate and making clear decisions.
Volunteer work, in this context, was defined as an activity done without monetary compensation and out of a person’s free will. It should also be something that benefits those outside of the core family unit and can involve helping out at a school, church, library or charity organisation.
Interestingly, the study found that those who only volunteered sporadically did not see an improvement in their cognition. They remained at the same level as people who did not volunteer at all, proving that consistent volunteering is key to receiving the benefits.
Professor Griep said: “Work has many benefits beyond just a pay cheque. It brings a structure to the day, like when we need to be up at seven and at the office for 8:30. It offers social contact with people outside of our family. It brings us the social status we get with a job title.
“It makes us feel like we’re making a meaningful contribution to society. And there’s a physical aspect as well, even if it’s just walking from your house to the spot where you do your volunteer work.”
He highlighted how important it is for seniors to take the risk of dementia seriously, especially as it increases year-on-year. Anything that can be done that doesn’t cost a lot and can easily be incorporated into everyday life is worth making the effort to do.
Volunteering, which is thought to be good as it engages the mind, ticks these boxes and has a knock-on effect on wider society. It helps the senior, as well as the organisation they are aiding and is beneficial for the healthcare system and family members that are relied upon to care for those who develop dementia.
Some 850,000 people in the UK suffer from dementia and this number is set to increase, meaning any lifestyle changes that can help to prevent it can only be a good thing. Research is underway to find a cure, but as yet it is just the symptoms that can be treated and not the disease itself.