There is an urgent need to identify lifestyle activities that reduce functional decline and dementia associated with population aging. The goals of this article are to review critically the evidence on the benefits associated with formal volunteering among older adults, propose a theoretical model of how volunteering may reduce functional limitations and dementia risk, and offer recommendations for future research. Database searches identified 113 papers on volunteering benefits in older adults, of which 73 were included. Data from descriptive, cross-sectional, and prospective cohort studies, along with 1 randomized controlled trial, most consistently reveal that volunteering is associated with reduced symptoms of depression, better self-reported health, fewer functional limitations, and lower mortality. The extant evidence provides the basis for a model proposing that volunteering increases social, physical, and cognitive activity (to varying degrees depending on characteristics of the volunteer placement) which, through biological and psychological mechanisms, leads to improved functioning; we further propose that these volunteering-related functional improvements should be associated with reduced dementia risk. Recommendations for future research are that studies (a) include more objective measures of psychosocial, physical, and cognitive functioning; (b) integrate qualitative and quantitative methods in prospective study designs; (c) explore further individual differences in the benefits associated with volunteering; (d) include occupational analyses of volunteers' specific jobs in order to identify their social, physical, and cognitive complexity; (e) investigate the independent versus interactive health benefits associated with volunteering relative to engagement in other forms of activity; and (f) examine the relationship between volunteering and dementia risk.
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