Volunteering Is Associated with Lower Risk of Cognitive Impairment

J Am Geriatr Soc. 2016 Nov;64(11):2263-2269. doi: 10.1111/jgs.14398. Epub 2016 Oct 3.


Objectives: To examine whether psychosocial factors that can be a target for interventions, such as volunteering, are associated with risk of cognitive impairment.

Design: Health and Retirement Study (HRS) data from 1998 to 2012, a nationally representative longitudinal panel survey of older adults assessed every 2 years, were used.

Setting: The HRS interviews participants aged 50 and older across the contiguous United States.

Participants: Individuals aged 60 and older in 1998 (N = 13,262).

Measurements: Personal interviews were conducted with respondents to assess presence of cognitive impairment, measured using a composite across cognitive measures.

Results: Volunteering at the initial assessment and volunteering regularly over time independently decreased the risk of cognitive impairment over 14 years, and these findings were maintained independent of known risk factors for cognitive impairment. Greater risk of onset of cognitive impairment was associated with being older, being female, being nonwhite, having fewer years of education, and reporting more depressive symptoms.

Conclusion: Consistent civic engagement in old age is associated with lower risk of cognitive impairment and provides impetus for interventions to protect against the onset of cognitive impairment. Given the increasing number of baby boomers entering old age, the findings support the public health benefits of volunteering and the potential role of geriatricians, who can promote volunteering by incorporating "prescriptions to volunteer" into their patient care.

Keywords: Health and Retirement Study; engagement in old age; psychosocial predictors of cognitive impairment; volunteering.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cognition Disorders / epidemiology
  • Cognition Disorders / prevention & control*
  • Cognition Disorders / psychology*
  • Female
  • Geriatric Assessment
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Risk Factors
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Volunteers / psychology*