Volunteering at School Is Good For Your Brain!

The new school year is almost two months old, and one of the least talked about needs of teachers are classroom volunteers. Classroom volunteers represent an unknown necessity in most schools.
They are usually retired senior citizens who are multifaceted in their abilities and approach toward classroom duties. It could be one-to-one reading, math or art instruction. Yet without their helping hands, many children in need of special attention would be lost. Conversely, the seniors are receiving something in return from the experience, what I like to call “cognitive stimulation.”
A teacher who uses volunteers explains about the benefits senior volunteers receive, “After a few months of volunteering the seniors say they begin to feel younger. They seemed more focused, and their ability to follow lessons and work with our most energetic children improved considerably.”
With this in mind, I decided to research studies about brain fitness and the different approaches brain scientists have suggested to slow down our brain’s aging process, particularly dementia. In 1900, the portion of U.S. adults 65 older was only 4.1 percent. Today it is 12.6 percent, and in 2030 it will be 20 percent.
One study was based on the benefits of learning new languages, doing difficult crossword puzzles or taking on intellectually stimulating tasks. Working as a school volunteer seemed to satisfy all three brain-fit recommendations. The volunteers would have to learn the new language of speaking to young children. Further, they would have to oversee language, math and art lessons that perhaps, at first, could seem like a crossword puzzle to their brains. And the art of teaching was definitely an intellectually challenging task.
Moreover, researchers found that physical stimulation could forestall some of the assumed declines associated with old age. The school volunteers walked on the school grounds, conversed with all ages and practiced resilience in social settings. This so-called physical stimulation is supported by another study that found that older adults who participated in aerobic exercise (walking) outperformed those in programs for stretching and toning in improving cognitive task areas.
It was discovered that the four most improved cognitive areas were the executive or higher order thinking functions, which are essential for planning, multitasking and making effortless responses to novel situations. Young children are in the present, particularly with their interpretation of the world and social resilience is needed.
Another study in 2001 involved 5,925 women 65 and older at four different medical centers across the United States. They asked the women how many blocks they walked or how many flights of stairs they climbed daily and also administered a questionnaire about their level of participation in 22 other physical activities. After eight years, the researchers assessed the women on cognitive functioning. The most active women had a 30 percent lower risk of cognitive decline.
Interestingly, walking distance was related to increased cognition but walking speed was not. Further, according to researchers, even moderate levels of physical activity have proved to limit cognitive decline.
Cognitive declines such as dementia are a mind/body connection and a link between physical activity and disease. That is physical activity reduces the risk of cardiovascular-related death, Type 2 diabetes, colon and breast cancer and osteoporosis. Also, cardiovascular disease and diabetes have been associated with a deteriorating cognition.
Lastly, a 2006 study examined the influence of fitness training on potential changes in brain structure.
The six-month study showed that even relatively short exercise intervention could begin to restore some losses in brain volume associated with normal aging.
Dementia will continue to become a major issue in spite of all our scientific research, but these studies suggest some viable solutions. In closing, perhaps a good mental exercise for seniors would be to investigate volunteer positions at your local school. It could change your life and maybe even your brain.

David Sortino, Ph.D, a Graton resident and the director of The Neurofeedback Institute. Email him at neurofeedbackinstitute.blogspot.com.

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