Weekly volunteer work reduces risk of dementia in retired seniors: Professor
Seniors who volunteered sporadically did not see the same cognitive benefits
If you’re a senior who is considering retirement or recently retired, you might want to consider taking up volunteer work.
According to a professor at the University of Calgary (U of C), seniors that consistently participate in volunteerism post-retirement substantially reduce the risk of developing dementia.
The study, led by Dr. Yannick Griep, a psychology professor for the U of C and published in the medical journal PLOS One, tracked 1,0001 Swedish citizens – all of whom retired in 2010 – over a five-year period, monitoring them for the development of cognitive problems.
“The idea is that people who volunteer continue to reap the latent benefits,” Griep told Metro on Wednesday. “So, when you retire, you usually lose benefits like having a structured day, contact beyond your family, and the idea that you have a purpose and contribution to society that is greater than simply paying taxes.”
The professor said the underlying assumption is that those in the regular volunteering camp stay sharper cognitively because they are continuing to engage their mind in these key ways.
Griep said in another study senior retiree subjects were asked to exercise a specific number of times a week and they also saw the benefits, but volunteerism appears to have the greatest affects.
“What is special about volunteering is that it’s the most prototypical activity that comes close to doing paid work. It’s the most closely related to the benefits that person had while they were working,” he said.
Griep said he and his co-researchers found that retirees who only volunteer sporadically did not receive any benefits to their cognitive health.
“You do need to do this constantly, so as soon as your volunteering discontinues, or you do it less often, there are no specific cognitive benefits for those individuals,” he said.
Griep said this is an important issue.
“As a senior, your risk of dementia goes up substantially. Anything you can do that’s low cost and easy to implement that will reduce the likelihood of dementia is invaluable.”
In a society that values work and youth, we have lost sight of the importance to reflection, questioning and “sacred aging.”
The Western world celebrates doing at the expense of being. Even religious communities, in their effort to be vibrant and relevant, often pay much more attention to action than to reflection and contemplation. Those in search of meaning, particularly the young, even travel to the Far East to find gurus who’d expose them to the art of being.
That doing is important to make a living and to contribute to society should be self-evident. The elimination of poverty in many places — albeit not enough and not everywhere — is largely due to what’s sometimes described as the Protestant work ethic. We’ve every reason to be enthusiastic partners in this, irrespective of our religious affiliation.
But there’s much more to life than work. We need to look into ourselves and beyond to affirm, nay celebrate, the mystery of human existence. Even those who work hard and enjoy its fruits ought to know that in order to live fully, more is needed than doing. Now when we live longer because of the favourable conditions created through work, our retirement years could be dedicated to being — to enjoy existence on Earth and perhaps also try to prepare for what’s beyond.
Psychologist and blogger Mary Pritchard has written that “society praises those who do: It’s more about what you accomplish than who you are as a person.” That’s probably why retirees, seemingly more men than women, are anxious to tell you, defensively, that now, though they no longer work for a living, they’re “busier than ever.” They may find it shameful to admit that they now have time to do “nothing,” to enjoy the everyday and the ordinary, with opportunities to reflect on what human existence is really about.
Pritchard recommends: “Instead of looking at your day as an endless to do list, what if you started each day with a question: ‘At the end of the day, how do I want to feel?’ After you ponder that one, you can ask yourself, ‘What will make me feel that way?’ ”
But that requires not only that society regards such questions as legitimate but also for the state to provide adequate support to enable retired people to live with dignity. That’s by no means always the case. Some people need to work past their retirement age in order to maintain themselves. This, alas, makes it virtually impossible for them to move beyond doing.
An editorial in this paper last month assumed that the answer is to allow, nay encourage, seniors to remain in the workplace beyond retirement age. Though this may be appropriate in exceptional cases, pensions should be made adequate to enable women and men to devote their “golden years” to the cultivation of being.
That’s the aim of the “sacred aging” movement in the American-Jewish community. Reacting against “our modern youth-obsessed culture,” it tells us that moving away from the world of doing “can be an empowering and inspiring opportunity for spiritual, emotional and psychological growth.”
Reminding us that in ancient and Indigenous cultures, including Judaism, “eldering has always been regarded as a sacred and honoured phase of life,” sacred aging seeks to encourage old people to lead “idle” lives that “continue to be vibrant with joy and self-discovery.”
As churches, synagogues and mosques usually have a large proportion of older worshippers, they may take to heart the Psalmist’s charge to “serve the Eternal with joy” by celebrating being without apologies. In the words of Rabbi Deborah Jacobson of Longmeadow, Mass., “we are here to keep learning and to keep growing especially in our character and in our spirit. None of that ends with ‘retirement.’ ”
Dow Marmur is rabbi emeritus of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple. His column appears every four weeks.
Aging gets a bad rap. But disease, decline and discomfort is far from the whole story. Dilip Jeste, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at UC San Diego and director of the UCSD Center for Healthy Aging, is challenging us to take another look.
In conversation with Nautilus, Jeste points out that some things get better with age, like the ability to make decisions, control emotions, and have compassion for others—in other words, we get wiser with age. The challenge to aging well, he argues, is to be an optimist, resilient and pro-active, allowing the benefits of age to shine through. The corresponding challenge for doctors is not just to increase lifespan, but to increase healthy life.
Nautilus caught up with Jeste earlier this month.
What is successful aging?
There are three domains of aging: Physical, cognitive, and psycho-social. Most people think about aging as physical aging, and that’s why there is a negative perception about aging and a bias against aging. In terms of cognition, again, there is something similar. Starting after middle age, say around 60 or so, memory and other abilities decline. However, psychosocial aging is really important, and that is usually not studied and that is not included in the concept of aging.
So what is psychosocial aging? It includes things like well-being, happiness, quality of life, control of emotions, socialization. Those are the kinds of things that matter a lot to people, and they need to be included. Successful aging mainly refers to better well-being, greater happiness, and not just arriving at old age, but thriving and even flourishing.
Where is life in old age both longer and healthier?
In Europe, gains in longevity level off with country wealth. But healthy longevity does not
IN THE end, it is not the years in your life that count. It is the life in your years,” goes the saying. Many people fear that a trade-off between the two is inevitable: they may live to a very old age, but their final years may be spent in wretched health.
Data from 30 European countries suggest that such a trade-off depends on where people live, and whether they are men or women (see interactive chart below). The number of years of healthy life that the average person can expect comes from a survey asking people about long-term health problems that limit their usual daily activities.
On average, European women who turn 65 can expect to live about three years longer than men at that age, who have a life expectancy of 17.4 years. However, women tend to spend much of that extra time in poor health; the number of healthy years for men and women is the same, at just over nine.
Does it help to live in one of Europe’s richer countries? The data suggest that life expectancy at age 65 rises with a country’s wealth, but only up to a point. The trend levels off at a GDP per person of around $30,000 (adjusted for differences in price levels between countries), which is roughly the dividing line between eastern and western Europe. By contrast, the time spent in good health increases in a linear fashion with a country’s wealth. Italian 65-year-olds, for example, can expect to live about the same number of years as Norwegian ones, even though Norway is much richer than Italy. But Norway’s elderly are likely to spend nearly 80% of their remaining time in good health, whereas those in Italy can hope for just 40%.
This may be a result of countries’ spending on public services and infrastructure. Many characteristic health problems of old age, such as difficulties with hearing or eyesight, are not fatal; but unless they are dealt with, and unless public spaces are adapted to the needs of the elderly, they can make life miserable. Pavements, street signs and pedestrian signals, for example, are often designed for the young and able-bodied. Richer countries have more money to spend on making them better suited to older age groups. That may not extend lifespans, but it can help people make the most of their remaining years.
What if You Knew Alzheimer’s Was Coming for You?
Simple blood tests may soon be able to deliver
alarming news about your cognitive health.
By PAGAN KENNEDY NOV. 17, 2017
"Everything about our relationship to Alzheimer’s is in flux right now. The disease — once thought to be unpreventable — is beginning to look more like a multifactorial illness that might result from poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle, chronic inflammation, exposure to chemicals in the environment and genetics. Some scientists now describe Alzheimer’s disease as another form of diabetes; others are pursuing a link between Alzheimer’s disease and cardiovascular problems. And studies have shown a link between Alzheimer’s and exposure to air pollution and head injuries. Many researchers in the field, including Dr. Holtzman, believe that the key to defeating Alzheimer’s will be to catch it at the earliest possible moment and prevent it.
It remains unclear whether lifestyle interventions can significantly delay cognitive decline. But the members of ApoE4 group believe that by banding together, sharing data and collaborating with scientists, they can improve their odds. “We are genetic pioneers, modern-day canaries in the coal mine, searching for and testing out strategies,” reads the group’s website. Rather than seeing themselves as victims of genetic bad luck, Ms. Gregory and her collaborators regard themselves as citizen scientists and activists who may be able to outsmart the disease.
KOLKATA, India — Once when I was searching for old-age homes in Kolkata for a story, my mother said sardonically: “Look around you. The whole neighborhood has become an old-age home.” It was an exaggeration but not by much.
The old man down the street was recovering from a knee replacement. The elderly lady across from him spent her days in her nightgown feeding the neighborhood’s stray dogs. The children were gone — to the United States and Australia, to Bengaluru and Mumbai. When my sister went to pay our property taxes she found a separate line for seniors. It was pointless. Almost everyone there was a senior.
My mother had grown up as one of 30-odd cousins, all living in one sprawling house. In the morning they would leave their soaps outside the common bathroom to mark their place in the line. On holiday afternoons they would crowd onto their grandmother’s bed. It was not a very big bed but somehow they all fit. Only a few of the next generation still live in Kolkata. The others return for weddings and funerals.
When I lived in the United States, my immigrant friends would always say their dream was to retire in India. The magnetic lure of the dollar had pulled them to the United States. In old age they planned to be economic migrants again, returning to India, where their dollar would go much further. India was the coda to their American dream. Who wants to live in the United States in old age, they would shudder. It was too expensive, too lonely, too difficult.
But according to the Global Age Watch Index, a survey by Help Age International that measures the quality of life — using income security, health, personal capability and enabling environment — for people age 60 and older, India ranked 71 out of 96 countries in 2015.
It was the afternoon of her 91st birthday, and unusually hot, part of a heat wave that had community leaders worried. Elderly volunteers had been winding through the labyrinth of footpaths, distributing leaflets on the dangers of heatstroke to the many hundreds of residents like Mrs. Ito who lived alone in 171 nearly identical white buildings. With no families or visitors to speak of, many older tenants spent weeks or months cocooned in their small apartments, offering little hint of their existence to the world outside their doors. And each year, some of them died without anyone knowing, only to be discovered after their neighbors caught the smell.
The first time it happened, or at least the first time it drew national attention, the corpse of a 69-year-old man living near Mrs. Ito had been lying on the floor for three years, without anyone noticing his absence. His monthly rent and utilities had been withdrawn automatically from his bank account. Finally, after his savings were depleted in 2000, the authorities came to the apartment and found his skeleton near the kitchen, its flesh picked clean by maggots and beetles, just a few feet away from his next-door neighbors.
The huge government apartment complex where Mrs. Ito has lived for nearly 60 years — one of the biggest in Japan, a monument to the nation’s postwar baby boom and aspirations for a modern, American way of life — suddenly became known for something else entirely: the “lonely deaths” of the world’s most rapidly aging society.
“4,000 lonely deaths a week,” estimated the cover of a popular weekly magazine this summer, capturing the national alarm.
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