By The Rev. Paul Graves 

Have you ever damaged an arm, a leg, a hip or a shoulder? After it was repaired, was it immediately as “good as new”, or did you have to work hard to get it back into good shape? Yes, hard work was involved.

The same is true with our brains, folks, especially as we grow older. Associate Professor Michelle Carlson of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore MD, affirms that “…brain health is a benefit of doing a good thing…”

Rev. Paul Graves

“Even though you’re aging,” she says, “your brain continues to need stimulation. As you get older, there are fewer opportunities for stimulation, and that (can lead) to a constriction in your life, which impacts your brain.”

Perhaps Dr. Carlson understands Aristotle when he affirmed that the essence of life is “to serve others and do good.”

A 2009 research effort at Dr. Carlson’s school studied older adults involved in a large mentoring program with children and youth. The findings suggested that “older adults who participated in (that program) made gains in key brain functions that support cognitive abilities important to planning and organizing one’s daily life.”

In a 2013 study at Carnegie Mellon University, they found “One key for deriving health benefits from volunteering is to do it for the right reasons…Participants who volunteered with some regularity lived longer, but only if their intentions were truly altruistic.

In other words, they had to be volunteering to help others — not to make themselves feel better.”

Wow! Helping others comes before “feeling good” yourself? Not necessarily. They might come along together, but primary motivation does matter for good brain health.

What happens may be attributed to the concept of Generosity. Whether giving of ourselves through wealth, goods, or our very selves, generosity literally triggers some brain chemical activities. Another researcher, Stephen G. Post of Stony Brook University in New York, says that “the feel-good effects of giving begin in the brain.”

He calls it “giver’s glow.” As we give of ourselves in some way, the brain releases happiness chemicals that science calls dopamine, endorphins, and Oxytocin. They stimulate the brain’s mesolimbic pathway, where our rewarding stimuli “live.” Do you know any more about what those chemicals do?

One way to find out is to take a little journey on the Internet. Google “Good brain health and volunteering.” Some helpful articles appear. Better yet, get into a conversation with a medical professional or a volunteer manager or someone who is simply curious like I hope you are.

Our bodies may grow older and show wear-and-tear, friends; but our brains have a “plasticity” you wouldn’t believe. Our brains can be resilient today, and even more resilient tomorrow! Volunteering wherever you are is a great way to make that happen.

The Rev. Paul Graves serves as the chair for the Commission on Older Adult Ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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