Promising new research suggest socialization — such as talking with friends and family — might be just as good for brain health as doing crossword puzzles — and probably a lot more fun.
Rush University Medical Center researchers say that visiting friends, attending parties, and even going to church might help to prevent or delay cognitive decline in old age.
The researchers were especially careful in their analysis to try to rule out the possibility that cognitive decline precedes, or causes, social isolation, and not the reverse.
“It’s logical to think that when someone’s cognitive abilities break down, they are less likely to go out and meet friends, enjoy a camping trip, or participate in community clubs. If memory and thinking capabilities fail, socializing becomes difficult,” said lead researcher Bryan James, Ph.D.
“But our findings suggest that social inactivity itself leads to cognitive impairments.”
Over 1,000 older adults with an average age of 80 participated in the study with each participant undergoing yearly evaluations, including a medical history and neuropsychological tests.
Social activity was measured based on a questionnaire that asked participants whether, and how often, in the previous year they had engaged in activities that involve social interaction—for example, whether they went to restaurants, sporting events or the teletract (off-track betting) or played bingo; went on day trips or overnight trips; did volunteer work; visited relatives or friends; participated in groups such as the Knights of Columbus; or attended religious services.
Nineteen tests for various types of memory (episodic, semantic and working memory), as well as assessments of perceptual speed and visuospatial ability, were performed to determine mental functioning.
At the start of the investigation, all participants were free of any signs of cognitive impairment. Over an average of five years, however, those who were more socially active showed reduced rates of cognitive decline.
Researchers found that those who had the highest levels of social activity (the 90th percentile) experienced only one-quarter of the rate of cognitive decline experienced by the least socially active individuals.
Additional factors that might have accounted for the increase in cognitive decline—such as age, physical exercise, and health—were all ruled out in the analysis.
Scientists are unsure how social activity maintains cognitive function. According to James, one theory is that “social activity challenges older adults to participate in complex interpersonal exchanges, which could promote or maintain efficient neural networks in a case of ‘use it or lose it.’”
Future research will determine if a cause and effect relationship exisits between social activity and prevention or slowing of cognitive decline.
The study is found in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.
Source: Rush University Medical Center