Volunteer Corner: Volunteering and the Aging Brain

By Mike Touzeau, Staff Writer

You hear it over and over—exercise, eat right, get enough sleep, don’t smoke, and don’t drink too much— the mantra from medical experts for general good health and longevity.

But, what about your aging brain?

There is growing evidence that neurogenesis (basically producing new brain cells) occurs even as we age, and that stimulation significantly helps.

Retired industrial psychologist Wes Whitman, a GVSVC board member who created the manual for the Clearinghouse data base, focused for much of his career in the corporate world and as a professor on the effects the brain has on human behavior, and he believes volunteering can contribute to a healthier aging brain. Instructing psychology of the brain through the OLLI program after retirement, Whitman devoted the last section of his syllabus to ways to keep the brain active, and volunteering, he says, is especially beneficial.

He likens the phenomenon to the spare tire that rarely gets pulled from the trunk. Even though it has plenty of tread, it can be underperforming once you need it—a sort of use it or lose it proposition. It gets forgotten.

“Volunteering is one of the best ways to use it,” he declared.

Here are just a handful of reasons he offers as to why we should look at volunteering the same way we look at exercise, nutrition, sleep, relaxation, etc., as essential to stemming the deterioration of an aging brain:


  1. Unpredictability—many of us when we retire continually associate with people who have the same interests, so we can get mired in the same conversations about the same things day after day, golf round after golf round, for example. It all becomes predictable, a rut. A volunteer assignment means new people, which mean new thoughts, ideas, opinions, all of which mean our brains analyze, compute, and interact with new stimuli.
  2. Novel behavior—we need to do new things we’ve never done before, simple as that. Human beings will continue to do new things if they receive positive feedback when they do them, and reject new things if they get negative feedback, he said, so don’t just walk in and sign up. That’s why the Clearinghouse exists; to find you an activity you can enjoy, assure you will do well, get positive feedback, and help others at the same time.
  3. Intellectual curiosity—we might think we are curious, but as we age we are less likely to be so. Kids are naturally curious and their brain development accelerates because of it. Volunteering is almost always learning something new to satisfy that “need” for the brain while doing something for your community.
  4. Healthy skepticism—is there more than we are being told? It’s very healthy for our brains to become seekers of truth and wisdom, to analyze and weigh information that bombards us. Truth is not going to just fall on us from the sky. You can find the truth about what’s happening in the world around you when you get engaged in your own community as a volunteer. You can sit around and debate political points forever, but you can draw more truthful conclusions when you are doing and observing firsthand.
  5. Change—the only thing constant in our lives is change. Even if all you decide to do is walk a rescue dog, it’s still a change from what you do now, and every time there’s a different dog, or a different way of walking it, it’s a change that stimulates the brain, plus you get some exercise and meet other people. You experience more change when you are more willing to make a change.

Wes watched voters with some astonishment many years ago when everybody pulled levers, noting that most spent only

a moment behind the curtain because they pulled just one lever to vote the party line. It was a sign that we humans get programmed and then reinforced to think a certain way, which keeps us from exercising our brains. Repetitive and limited experiences are not so good, Wes said.

“When you work out at the gym, you don’t just do one exercise,” he explained. And, if you continue the same routine your muscles will eventually get used to that routine and that limits their capacity to give you optimum physical performance when you need them. Since you rely on your brain to give you maximum mental performance, shouldn’t it be regularly worked out, too?

So, how does one create new pathways, produce some new cells?

“Put on a new tire,” Wes says. “Go to our website and we’ll help you find something that fits. Do something for somebody else, meet somebody new.”

You’ll be exercising perhaps the most essential organ in your body.