Can volunteering boost brain health for retirees? Study underway with aging boomers

Can volunteering boost brain health for retirees? Study underway with aging boomers

Toronto, Ontario, April 19, 2010 — An innovative study is underway in Toronto to see if volunteering can boost brain health for retirees.

As many as 200 retired aging boomers (aged 55+) are being recruited by Baycrest, an internationally-renowned academic health sciences centre, to be part of a four-year study that will scientifically measure the physical, psychosocial and cognitive benefits of engaging in volunteer work at the centre.

Retirement idleness not good for the brain

Last month at a global conference on the frontal lobes in Toronto, organized by Baycrest and the University of California at Berkeley, Dr. Lars Nyberg from Umea University in Sweden presented data from a large study that tracked the cognitive health of more than 4,000 adults over 20 years. The study found that certain cognitive functions start to decline gradually around the mid 30s and take a sharp drop around 60 to 65 years of age – which happens to coincide with the transition from working life to retirement for many older adults as one conference attendee pointed out after the presentation. However, there is growing scientific evidence that education level as well as lifestyle choices, such as a low-fat diet, regular aerobic exercise, and doing activities that exercise the brain in novel ways, can help counteract age-related cognitive decline.

The Baycrest study is the first to scientifically measure if specific volunteering activities can actually improve older adults’ cognitive functions, such as memory and attention. Volunteers will be assessed with reliable and valid measures prior to beginning their new role and after six months of volunteering.

“Volunteering is generally accepted as good for you once you’ve retired and we’ve set out to measure objectively how this activity improves physical, social and cognitive functioning,” said Baycrest senior scientist and clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Nicole Anderson, who is leading the study in collaboration with Baycrest Volunteer Services. “We expect that the greatest cognitive gains will be for volunteers placed in more mentally stimulating and challenging roles, such as supervising a group of volunteers in a clinical unit, or counseling isolated seniors over the phone.”

“The long-term scientific objective of Baycrest’s study is to see if volunteering is an intervention that has a protective effect against dementia,” said Dr. Anderson.

The Baycrest BRAVO study (Baycrest Research About Volunteering among Older Adults) is funded by the Government of Canada’s New Horizons for Seniors Program and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

As expected, the study has managers of volunteer programs very excited. As Baby Boomers edge closer to their retirement years, they represent the largest, healthiest and most educated pool of potential volunteer talent the Volunteer Sector has ever seen. Not only will boomers look for volunteer roles that reflects their values, experience and skill set, but they are keenly focused on extending their brain and body health longer in the lifespan.

“If we can show that volunteering helps us maintain our cognitive powers after we’ve retired, that will be an incredibly persuasive message in our recruitment marketing,” said Syrelle Bernstein, director of Volunteer Services at Baycrest.

“We have observed, anecdotally, that volunteering helps with healthy aging,” added Joanne Fine-Schwebel, director of Volunteer Services at Mount Sinai Hospital. “If the BRAVO study can provide definitive evidence of maintaining cognition through volunteering, it will be a win-win for our retired volunteers and our hospital patients who benefit so much from having volunteers on site.”

Dr. Anderson expects results from this innovative study to be published by 2013.

Retirees aged 55 or older who are not involved in another formal volunteer position are welcome to join the BRAVO study. For more information, contact Baycrest at 416-785-2500, ext. 2577.

Baycrest, an academic health sciences centre affiliated with the University of Toronto, is internationally renowned for its care of aging adults and its excellence in aging brain research, clinical treatments and promising cognitive rehab strategies.

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For more information on this press release, contact:

Kelly Connelly
Senior Media Officer