What could be sweeter than a blend of older and younger generations, enjoying a bond of companionship, mentorship, and just plain fun? For one particular team of senior volunteers, the benefits of helping young children learn to read in a public school library went far beyond what the eye could see.
It turns out that these older adults, who participated in a study through the Baltimore Experience Corps, were not only helping the overcrowded and understaffed schools, but incredibly, were actually reversing their own brain’s aging process. In the study, participants were given MRI scans of their brains and memory tests at the start of the program and again in 12 and 24 months. While the control group, which was not involved in the Experience Corps program, showed age-related brain shrinkage of .8 to 2%, those who volunteered at the schools actually had brain volume increases of .7 to 1.6%.
The exact reasoning behind the results is unclear; the participants engaged in a number of activities that could have provided these benefits – physical activity, working in teams and with children, problem solving, socializing, and finding meaning and purpose in sharing knowledge and helping others. According to Carlson, “We’re not training them on one skill, like doing crossword puzzles. We’re embedding complexity and novelty into their daily lives, something that tends to disappear once people retire. The same things that benefit us at 5, 10, 25, 35 – contact with others, meaningful work – are certain to benefit us as we age.”
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