How can seniors both reduce the effects of aging on the brain and give back to society? By tutoring children, that’s how. And it is exactly what thousands of elders are doing–teaching kids how to read, write and do math–giving many of the older folk a renewed sense of purpose.

According to a recent study, seniors who have volunteered for Experience Corps, a program matching elementary students in low-income schools with seniors who serve as tutors, showed improvements in the “executive function” regions of the brain involved in thinking and the ability to organize multiple tasks. The children had much greater reading comprehension and ability to sound out words compared to kids who were not tutored.

The study looked at eight women considered high risk of cognitive impairment because of their low income status, low education level [they had only completed an average of 12 years of school (high school)] and low scores on a cognition test. Researchers say that these preliminary results are encouraging, especially if they can carry over to prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.

Very nice. And no surprise to me. I know how important keeping the mind sharp is to staying young and vibrant. Obvious? Not really. The process of learning is instrumental in creating new dendrites, which leads to new processing pathways formed in the brain. New processing pathways = youth. Old processing pathways = wisdom. Youth + wisdom = vibrancy, influence and growth. Who doesn’t value that?

Research shows that keeping the mind conditioned through systematic mental exercise can protect against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Yes, physical exercise helps too–particularly cardiovascular work–and we know how vital staying social is to warding off cognitive decline; but when it comes to maximal brain function and protection, nothing beats good old fashioned learning.

On a final note, there is evidence that having “purpose” can actually prolong life–and volunteering is one phenomenal way to go about it. A recent study showed that retirees over age 65 who volunteered had less than half the risk of dying compared to their non-volunteering peers. Now that’s impressive. If you love helping others, consider volunteering your time and mental prowess to teaching children how to read and solve equations. Really, it’s a win-win situation–they get smarter and you keep trucking. Now what can be better than that?

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