Civic engagement may slow mental aging

If you're looking to keep your brain sharp throughout your later years, you may want to start looking for volunteer opportunities in your community. According to a new study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, participating in meaningful civic activities helps to stave off cognitive decline in seniors.

The researchers investigated the effects of volunteering on retired Baltimore residents who participated in the Baltimore Experience Corps, which matches retired people with elementary school children for reading practice. These volunteers serve as a vital support to often understaffed public school libraries. 

Study leader Michelle Carlson and her colleagues randomly assigned 111 men and women whose average age was 67.2 years to either participate in the Baltimore Experience Corps or not. Their brains were examined using MRI scans before beginning volunteer work, 12 months in and 24 months in, and they were given memory tests at the same times.

The results were striking: The participants who didn't volunteer with the Experience Corps had brain shrinkage at the end of the study, while those who did participate actually showed gains in brain volume. This was especially marked in the male participants, who showed growth of .7 percent to 1.6 percent. 

According to Carlson, it's not one particular aspect of volunteering that preserves seniors' mental ability. It's the fact that participating in these activities allows them to maintain a sense of novelty and excitement.

"We're embedding complexity and novelty into their daily lives, something that tends to disappear once people retire. The same things that benefit us at 5, 10, 25, 35 – contact with others, meaningful work – are certain to benefit us as we age," she said in a statement.

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