Study reveals volunteering reduces the chance of developing dementia

A Swansea University academic is part of a team that has discovered that individuals who decide to retire from the workforce, but start to volunteer instead, report substantially less cognitive complaints and are far less likely to be diagnosed with dementia compared to retired workers who do not volunteer.

Martin HydeDr Martin Hyde (pictured) from Swansea University’s College of Human and Health Sciences, together with researchers from the University of Calgary, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Stockholm University and the University of Leuven made this discovery by following 1001 retired workers over the course of five years based on their engagement in volunteering.

Dr Hyde who became involved in the project through his former position working at the Stress Research Institute (SRI) in Stockholm said: “This is an important study which shows the beneficial effects of volunteering.

“As populations age across the world there is a growing interest in factors that can help to maintain cognitive function and protect against dementia.

“We were fortunate to be able to use longitudinal data linked to administrative data on drug prescriptions from the Swedish Longitudinal Occupational Study of Health based at the SRI, to explore the link between volunteering and cognitive function and dementia.”

 The 1001 individuals were divided into three groups: retired workers who were constantly engaged in volunteering; retired workers who were sporadically engaged in volunteering, and retired workers who were never engaged in volunteering.  The cognitive health of these individuals was assessed repeatedly by means of questionnaires, physician diagnoses, and medication use.

Retired workers who were constantly engaged in volunteering (volunteering for at least one hour per week) reported fewer cognitive problems such as problems concentrating, remembering, or thinking clearly, compared to retired workers who were sporadically or never engaged in volunteering. In addition, the researchers found that retired workers who constantly engaged in volunteering were remarkably less likely to be diagnosed with dementia and prescribed an anti-dementia treatment compared to retired workers who were sporadically or never engaged in volunteering.

Given the positive impact of volunteering for the cognitive health of retired workers, the recommendation by the research team was that retired workers engage in volunteering for at least one hour per week.

Dr Hyde said: “Although the data in this study comes from Sweden, I think the results are applicable to other countries in Europe and elsewhere.

Nevertheless, since dementia has now surpassed heart disease as the main cause of death in England and Wales it would be great to see if this study could be replicated using Welsh data to help support the goals of ageing well in Wales.”

The results of this research were recently published in leading psychology and medical journal (PlosOne).