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Volunteering to Get Smarter

Have you ever known someone who could recal stories from their past with such great detail it felt like you were listening to a documentary? They knew the name of the street in that charming little village they visited in France over 30 years ago, the province it belonged to and what music was playing the day they got there. However if you were to ask them the name of the person they met at the grocery store yesterday they might stumble quite a bit before coming up with a few uncertain guesses.

When we think of memory, most people think of it as one specific function of the brain. However memory is much more complicated than that and breaks down into different types, which are often debated. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll focus on the long and short term memory.

Long vs Short Term Memory

Long term memory is information in the brain that has been accessed and retrieved many times. Think of it as your super highway of information. The road is well paved and quick for traveling. Short term memory is information that is newer and not accessed often. Like an unpaved foot trail in the woods. The less that information gets accessed, the quicker it will disappear, much like the foot trail in the woods if people stop walking on it. Thankfully our long term memories are very well protected in the brain and are typically the last type of memory to decline as we age.

Short term memory requires work to move into the deeper long term area of the brain. This is great because who wants to remember every little mistake we make in life? Thank the goodness for forgetting. The brain is very efficient, so if we do not make an attempt to remember something, like what we ate for breakfast, it will fade away and make room for something we deem more important. By repeating information we are essentially creating a stronger connection to that information in our brain. The more we access it, the more likely it will turn into a super highway for us to access anytime at great speed.

Novel Stimulation Builds on Neural Circuits

Volunteering is a great way to improve important cognitive functions such as short term memory. Research has especially shown this to be true as we age or for people with lower education levels that volunteer. Our brains on average reach their maximum size (by weight) between the ages of 18-30 years old. After 30 there is typically a very gradual loss of neural circuiting in the aging brain believed to be the reason behind the loss of volume. That loss can become more progressive after retirement if we do not find ways to continue to stimulate our neurons in new and challenging ways.

By volunteering, you are given many opportunities to strengthen these precious areas within our brain: word retrieval/vocabulary, attention, problem solving, reasoning, working memory, delayed and short term recall to name a few. All things we tend to use in most jobs or careers to be successful. The great part about volunteering is that it gives you a chance to work on improving your cognition without the threat of being fired or having an overwhelming schedule.

Cognitive Endurance

When working with young adults in southern California that suffered a traumatic brain injury, volunteering was often an important step in the brain recovery process. We would set goals and access progress each week. For most, cognitive endurance (how long they could concentrate on a task) was a significant barrier. So we would start with a goal of one hour of volunteer work, twice a week after achieving an hour of cognitive endurance in the therapy room first. The amount of opportunities for improving neural circuitry through volunteering was vaster than what could be done in the therapy room and better helped them for return to school, military or work. The therapy room was great for dissecting and better understanding the specific cognitive barriers for that person which would then be improved through targeted brain exercises.

Use It or Lose It

If you are looking for ways to keep your mind sharp, volunteering is a free and easy place to start. If you have noticed a decline in your thinking abilities, I highly recommend consulting with your neurologist for a work up and consider Speech Therapy for more personalized training of your cognitive deficits.