Volunteering later in life may postpone, prevent cognitive decline and dementia, study shows

Local caregiver, longtime volunteer encouraged to know there are clear ways to keep brain healthy

SAN ANTONIO – Ret. U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Glenda Rast spent her Monday volunteering for the Bulverde Spring Branch Angels, picking up Christmas presents for local kids.

Though retired, she fills her days with volunteer work.

“With the Alzheimer’s Association as a community educator. With my Kiwanis Club, we do a Stuff the Bus once a year. February, we do a big diaper and baby wipe drive, and I will help Salvation Army ring the bell,” Rast said.

Researchers say older adults should follow her lead.

New research presented at this year’s Alzheimer’s Association International Conference found volunteering later in life may protect the brain against cognitive decline and dementia.

Those who volunteered several times per week had the highest levels of executive function. The research also showed better memory and executive function among those who volunteered.

“(This has) a personal connection because my father had dementia when he died. My mother-in-law right now is suffering from the disease,” Rast said.

Rast is also a retired audiologist and watched many of her patients suffer.

“I think Ronald Reagan called it the long goodbye,” she said.

That’s why she’s glad to know new research shows families how to potentially postpone that decline.

“Staying socially active is an important part of mental health, which obviously would impact folks’ ability to maintain cognitive function,” said Greg Sciuto, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association of San Antonio/South Texas.

Sciuto said volunteering involves physical activity and social interaction, stimulating and protecting the brain.

“It also benefits the caregiver by being socially active, getting outside of the house, and staying connected to folks. It’s really an important thing,” Sciuto said.

Rast’s heart lifts as she collects the Christmas presents, knowing similar actions could be staving off dementia for others.

“I’m happier when I’m volunteering because I’m giving back,” she said.

Rast and Sciuto said there are many ways to volunteer for dementia patients who are less physically and mentally capable.

“Sharing your story is a great way to volunteer with the Alzheimer’s Association to help reduce stigma,” Sciuto said.

Even taking part in clinical trials is a way to volunteer. Visits and tests create social interaction, and the results could save the lives of other patients down the line.

To find out more ways to volunteer, head to the Alzheimer’s Association website or call 800-272-3900.

About the Authors:

Courtney Friedman anchors KSAT’s weekend evening shows and reports during the week. Her ongoing Loving in Fear series confronts Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She joined KSAT in 2014 and is proud to call the SA and South Texas community home. She came to San Antonio from KYTX CBS 19 in Tyler, where she also anchored & reported.

Sal Salazar is a photojournalist at KSAT 12. Before coming to KSAT in 1998, he worked at the Fox affiliate in San Antonio. Sal started off his career back in 1995 for the ABC Affiliate in Lubbock and has covered many high-profile news events since. In his free time, he enjoys spending time at home, gaming and loves traveling with his wife.