Improving Your Health and Others through Volunteerism

September 2, 2023 at 3:56 p.m.
76-year-old Seattleite, Eileen MacIntyre, is part of a group of volunteers who write postcards to voters to remind them to register and of upcoming elections. Photo by John Schieszer.
76-year-old Seattleite, Eileen MacIntyre, is part of a group of volunteers who write postcards to voters to remind them to register and of upcoming elections. Photo by John Schieszer.

Adults age 50 and older who do volunteer work may receive many more benefits than they ever realized. A new study has found that volunteering is associated with better cognitive function and other health benefits. When you volunteer, you're not only contributing to your own well-being, but also the betterment of your community or organization that you are a part of.

Volunteer activities such as supporting educational, religious, health-related or other charitable organizations can allow older adults to be more physically active, increase social interaction and provide cognitive stimulation that may protect the brain. However, there has been a lack of information on the relationship between volunteering and cognitive function, especially in large, diverse populations.

“We hope these new data encourage individuals of all ages and backgrounds to engage in local volunteering, not only to benefit their communities, but potentially their own cognitive and brain health,” said Donna McCullough, who is the chief of mission and field operations for the Alzheimer’s Association at the University of California Davis Health System.

Researchers examined volunteering habits among an ethnic and racially diverse population of 2,476 older adults. The participants are in the Kaiser Healthy Aging and Diverse Life Experiences Study and the Study of Healthy Aging in African Americans. The study group had an average age of 74 and contained 48% Black, 20% white, 17% Asian and 14% Latino participants. A total of 1,167 participants (43%) reported volunteering in the past year.

The researchers found that volunteering was associated with better baseline scores on tests of executive function and verbal memory. This was true even after adjusting for age, sex, education, and income. Those who volunteered several times per week had the highest levels of executive function.

The authors said that volunteering may be important for better cognition in late life and could serve as a simple intervention in all older adults to protect against risk for Alzheimer’s disease and associated dementias. In this study, volunteering was associated with a trend toward less cognitive decline over the follow-up time of 1.2 years.

“You’re not in control of your family history or age and you can’t turn back the clock. But you are in control of how you spend your day and life,” said the study principal investigator Rachel Whitmer, who is a professor of Neurology and with the Population Brain Health Lab at the University of California, Davis. “Volunteering is about keeping your brain active. It’s also about socializing, which keeps you engaged and happy, and potentially lowers stress.”

Eileen McIntyre, who is 76 and lives in Seattle, Washington, has been part of a group of volunteers who for the past six years have written postcards to voters to help them register and to remind them of upcoming elections. “It’s a great antidote to political anxiety,” said McIntyre. “I also have volunteered to sing in a church choir for the past 30 years and am constantly amazed at the ‘joyful noise’ a group of amateurs can create.”

McIntyre for the past 18 years has lived in a condominium and has volunteered on the condo board as a treasurer. “This has been challenging, interesting and surprising work. All of these activities benefit my mental health by keeping me involved and active,” said McIntyre.

The isolation in the COVID pandemic was difficult for McIntyre, as it was for so many older adults. She knew she needed to do something to help her community even though she could no longer sing at her church. “I gained a new appreciation for the value of being able to work in person on these volunteer projects. I wasn’t looking for a second family when I joined the choir, but that’s what I got. They are a diverse group of people who are fun, accepting and great friends during both hard and good times.  My life is so much richer because they are in it,” said McIntyre.

Volunteering is known to be associated with physical, social, and mental health benefits. For example, older adults who volunteer may be more physically active, increasing their cardiovascular health and decreasing their stress. “Volunteering also allows older adults more opportunities to interact and build relationships with other people, reducing isolation and depression. Furthermore, volunteering will help older adults engage in tasks and new activities” said Whitmer.

Volunteering in itself is an altruistic activity which may lead to better overall feelings about yourself, and an improved mood and sense of purpose. “Volunteer in your community or for an organization that you feel most passionate about and comfortable in. Our study showed that any volunteering is better than no volunteering at all,” said Whitmer.

It was estimated 23.2% of Americans or more than 60.7 million people formally volunteered with organizations between September 2020 and September 2021. In total, these volunteers served an estimated 4.1 billion hours with an economic value of $122.9 billion. However, there is a great need for more adults age 50 and older to volunteer in their communities. 

For some volunteers, it may be as simple as helping someone sort their mail and pay bills. AmeriCorps, the federal agency for volunteerism and national service, assisted more than 113,000 low-income Americans with tax preparation in 2023 across 130 cities, returning more than $84 million back to eligible families. AmeriCorps Seniors RSVP and AmeriCorps NCCC programs activated volunteers and members to assist families through what can be a difficult process, ensuring individuals received all benefits for which they were eligible.

AmeriCorps Seniors enables Americans aged 55 and older to serve in their local communities. AmeriCorps Seniors RSVP tax preparation programs activated 1,890 volunteers this tax season to help more than 100,000 Americans. Each volunteer served more than 50 individuals with tax preparation services. The volunteers generated more than $69 million in 2022 tax returns.

“AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers provided invaluable tax preparation assistance to more than 101,000 Americans in need help during the 2023 tax season,” said Atalaya Sergi, director, AmeriCorps Seniors. “RSVP programs across the country activated their skilled and talented AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers to support families, individuals, veterans and military families, making sure they received the critical tax benefits they were entitled to receive.”

John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute. He can be reached at

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