50+ health * Healthy living * Mental wellbeing

Party on to stay smart

Party on to stay smart Social activity can protect against mental decline says study

One of the great fears of growing old is the loss of mental abilities. Hence the boom in "brain training" products supposedly designed to keep our wits sharp.

But now a new study suggests that social activity can be just as important in maintaining the brain's capabilities.

Of course it may be that as our faculties decline we become less willing or able to socialise, but the study was carefully designed to account for this factor.

Scientists at the Rush University Medical Center looked at over 1,000 adults with a mean age of 80 (taking part in a wider study into chronic conditions of ageing). Each participant underwent yearly evaluations that included a medical history and neuropsychological tests.

Social activity was gauged by asking whether, and how often, in the previous year they had engaged in activities that involve social interaction. This could be eating out, attending sports events, playing bingo, visiting friends or relatives, or even going to church.

The mental abilities of the participants were also assessed using a variety of tests. At the beginning of the study all the volunteers were of similar mental capability. But after 5 years, the people who were the most socially active experienced a decline only 25% of that of the least active.

Why this should be is not yet clear. Study leader Bryan James noted that "social activity challenges older adults to participate in complex interpersonal exchanges, which could promote or main efficient neural networks in a case of 'use it or lose it.'"

He added that "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, but our findings suggest that social inactivity itself leads to cognitive impairments."

The full study is published online in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.

This article was published on Tue 26 April 2011

Image © Yuri Arcurs - Fotolia.com

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