6 ways volunteering boosts your brain

Helping others comes with lots of benefits. Many of them have a surprising reward: keeping your brain sharp.

Older adult man and young woman volunteering together to boost their brains

Doing good can do a body — and brain — good. Yes, for the people you’re helping, but also for you. Researchers have found that acts of generosity and selflessness can greatly benefit your overall health. 

“When you’re volunteering, so many things can get better, because it exercises so many of one’s physical, emotional, and mental faculties at once,” says Yeates Conwell, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of Rochester School of Medicine & Dentistry in Rochester, New York. He’s also the director of the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Office for Aging Research and Health Services.  

Volunteering provides cognitive perks that can make a big difference in an older adult’s life. “People who volunteer are able to improve their energy and enjoy an overall better quality of life,” says Dr. Conwell.   

Here’s a deeper look at six key ways volunteering can make you healthier — and have a real impact on your brain. 

Looking to improve your attention span and focus? Access to BrainHQ’s brain health program can help, and it may be included with your Medicare Advantage plan. Check your eligibility today

Reason #1: People who volunteer may be happier and in a better mood  

Giving a gift or helping someone stimulates your brain’s reward center. This releases brain neurotransmitters known as “feel good” chemicals. These include dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin.  

These chemicals bring on feelings of joy, pleasure, and happiness. When some of these chemicals dip, there can be an increase in depression and anxiety

Volunteering isn’t a solution for major depression, but it might give you a lift. In one large study, people who volunteered were also found to be happier and more satisfied with life.   

Dr. Conwell has patients who are depressed due to issues related to aging, such as the death of a spouse or friend. “I can’t tell you how many times that, by getting them engaged in activities, including volunteering, we see things get a lot better with their mental health,” he says. 

Reason #2: People who volunteer also experience less stress  

It might seem like volunteering could cause stress, because, in theory, it adds another thing to your to-do list. But the opposite might happen. 

Cortisol is a hormone that floods the body when you’re stressed. In one study of people over the age of 60, participants who volunteered also had more balanced cortisol levels. 

Your body needs a certain amount of cortisol to function properly. But elevated cortisol levels can be damaging. They can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and stroke.  

Cortisol also affects the brain. Higher cortisol levels have been linked to cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Keeping stress in check means being kind to your brain. 

A senior man enjoying using his smart tablet
You might be eligible for no-cost brain training with BrainHQ.

Access to BrainHQ’s brain exercises may be included with your Medicare Advantage plan at no additional cost. Check your eligibility.

Reason #3: People who volunteer may have better memory and executive function  

Helping others has a direct line to a person’s memory. And this is particularly true for older adults.  

Research from the University of California, Davis recently found that people with better memory and executive function may be more capable of volunteering. Executive function refers to everyday mental skills that allow you to focus, prioritize tasks, and follow directions. Episodic memory is the ability to recall lists of words or details from stories.  

In the study, the scientists looked at the volunteering habits of a group of adults with an average age of 74. Their brain-related conclusions were interesting: 

  • Volunteering provided cognitive stimulation that may protect the brain. 
  • Volunteering for at least a year was associated with better executive function and memory. 
  • Those who volunteered the most had the highest levels of executive function. 
  • Over a year later, there was still less cognitive decline among the volunteers. 

Why might doing good keep the brain sharp? When you volunteer, you often pick up new skills. For instance, working with Habitat for Humanity provides an opportunity to be physically active. But you also learn how to build a home. Learning new skills challenges the brain to build new neural pathways, promoting brain health and function. 

Through volunteering, you also get a chance to use your expertise. If you have a lot of knowledge in a particular area, consider becoming a tour guide at a local museum, historical site, or national park. You can also look into teaching a class at a local library. This could be about anything, from knitting or writing to financial planning or computers. 

Build and maintain your brain health without having to leave your home. Where to start? Brain Fitness News. Sign up for our newsletter today

Reason #4: People who volunteer are more social  

The U.S. surgeon general has stated that the United States is in a loneliness epidemic. That’s bad enough on its own, but it turns out being lonely can also diminish brain power

Loneliness has an effect on many organs and bodily systems. The brain is no exception. Persistent loneliness was linked to atrophy in brain regions responsible for memory, according to a study in eClinicalMedicine

On the other hand, regular social interactions can help prevent certain illnesses, including dementia. Being social can even help you live longer. In fact, people with stronger social connections have a 50% greater likelihood of living longer, compared with those who don’t.  
“Having social connectiveness increases a sense of belonging, which is a basic human need,” says Dr. Conwell. 

If you’re struggling to stay socially connected, volunteering is a great way to make new friends. And it’s been proven to decrease loneliness. There are many volunteer opportunities that offer social interaction. You might work on a political campaign. Or join a project through your place of worship. Soup kitchens always need more help.  

Not a fan of big groups? Consider something more one-on-one. This could be visiting someone who’s homebound. You can spend an hour or two talking, doing a puzzle together, or sharing a meal. 

Reason #5: People who volunteer have a better sense of purpose  

It’s important to feel like your life and actions have meaning. However, a sense of purpose often diminishes with age. In one Stanford University survey, only 31% of people ages 50 to 92 said they felt like they had a purpose. 

One way to foster a sense of purpose is by making an impact in someone’s life — especially when there are long-lasting benefits. That goes for both the person being helped and the helper.  

Reason #6: People who volunteer may be keeping their brains sharp  

One study examined a program called Experience Corps, where volunteers ages 60 and older tutored elementary school students in reading — an activity that felt purposeful and meaningful. The study results were promising. The adults showed improvement in daily tasks such as cleaning, cooking, and laundry. They also had a decrease in memory loss and an uptick in executive function. (Of course, the children also reaped the rewards — improved reading skills and better classroom behavior.) 

If you’re interested in mentoring or tutoring children, you can check to see if an Experience Corps program is located in your area. If that’s not your thing, the key is just to find something you enjoy.  

Like gardening? Help out at a local community garden. Love animals? Volunteer at a local shelter or rescue, playing with cats or walking the dogs. Thrive in the outdoors? Look into cleaning up public parks. These are all great ways to boost your purpose, physical activity — and brain. 

You might be eligible to train your brain at no cost to you. BrainHQ is proven to help people think faster, focus better, and remember more — and it could be included at no cost to you with your Medicare Advantage plan. Check your eligibility today

Additional sources: 
Giving and health: Cleveland Clinic 
Volunteering and happiness: Journal of Happiness Studies 
Volunteering and cortisol levels: The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 
Loneliness and effects on the brain: eClinicalMedicine 
Volunteering and loneliness: Journal of Gerontological Social Work 
Percentage of people who felt they had a purpose: Stanford University Graduate School of Education and Encore.org 
Sense of purpose and cognitive function: Personality and Individual Differences