Can simply socializing with friends and family protect your brain and your memory as you age? Research has shown that people who have a small or nonexistent social circle or who are generally less engaged with other people are at greater risk of developing memory loss.
Investigators from the Harvard School of Public Health used information gathered from more than 16,000 HRS subjects between 1998 and 2004. Because the study spans several years, the researchers could draw conclusions about the crucial issue of causation. They could ask, does being socially active protect against memory loss? Or is it the other way around—do people who suffer cognitive decline tend to socialize less than average?
The results were impressive. People with the highest levels of interaction with family, friends, and other people were more likely to retain cognitive functioning. This connection was particularly prominent among people most at risk for dementia: those who had fewer than 12 years of education and those with “vascular conditions” (defined as high blood pressure, diabetes, or stroke). And since social interactions were measured before cognitive decline was apparent, the cause-effect relationships seem to hold up.
Another study done at Kaiser Permanente Southern California, a large health maintenance organization, looked at the effect of social networks on more than 2,200 female members. These participants, who were at least 78 years old, did not show any symptoms of dementia in 2001, when the study started. The women were given follow-up interviews over the next four years. The authors found that women with large social networks were less likely to develop dementia than were more isolated women. This finding held up when the researchers controlled for age, education, and depression and other health conditions.
How social contact helps
The two studies do not tell us how social integration protects against cognitive decline, but the authors suggest some possibilities. Regular social contact may not only promote healthier behaviors but also make it easier to get medical help when necessary. For example, friends and family may give helpful nudges to get a troubling symptom evaluated by a doctor, and then offer a ride to the medical office. Individuals may feel motivated to do what others in their life are doing to take care of themselves. And group pursuits may simply lead to more activity and exercise.
In addition, when people are more integrated into a social network and feel supported in their relationships, they may experience less stress—and avoid triggering stress hormones that may interfere with brain function. A rich social life may also be more emotionally and intellectually stimulating, exercising the brain and fostering better neuronal connections and even nerve cell growth.
The authors acknowledge the limitations of both studies. It would have been useful to have more detail about the quality of participants’ social connections. And one of the studies only included women. Nevertheless, the studies were unique because of the large pool of data obtained over several years. The results support the theory that social networks are a boon to intellectual health in later life.
Clinicians and policymakers can now take note: programs that keep older adults engaged and involved in their social life are likely to yield good results. Until the pharmacological treatment of dementia improves, relationships may be the most powerful treatment we have.
Creating new social connections in your life
Over time, social bonds can be broken. Older adults often face a time when close friends and relatives die. That’s why it’s important to grasp opportunities to expand your social circle and deepen ties you’ve already made:
- If you normally wait for others to reach out, pick up the phone and propose a date.
- Make a difference in someone’s life. Explore some of the many volunteer opportunities available, from wielding tools to spruce up affordable housing to mentoring a child or businessperson.
- Consider rejoining the work force. Besides bolstering your finances—which might be necessary—a job can offer opportunities to connect with others.
- Harness the warmer side of technology. E-mail and telephones extend our reach around the world. Libraries and senior centers may offer free online time and may even help you set up a free e-mail account.
- Find like-minded individuals through organizations or hobbies that interest you. Local newspapers are a good source of this information.
- Return to the classroom. Learn a new skill, brush up on an old one, or pursue a passion. Local colleges and adult education centers offer up a variety of new experiences—from learning to sail to studying art history to finding out how to make the perfect crème brûlée.