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Older brains get by with a little help from friends


At 77, my mom is sharp as a tack. She's a daily crossword devotee and voracious reader, having heard that mental activity can prevent age-related memory and thinking declines. According to new research, her active volunteer life and packed social schedule may have just as much to do with her mental resilience.

According to a report (registration required) just published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society:

On average, the most socially active individuals [the top 10 percent] experienced only one quarter of the rate of cognitive decline experienced by the least socially active individuals [the bottom 10 percent].

Their conclusion that social activity slows the fogging of mental processes relies upon a unique data set collected by scientists at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. They've had 1,138 older adults come in for annual checkups, including a long list of memory tests and measurements of the speed and accuracy of their thinking. Half of the participants have been followed for longer than 5 years.

The researchers ruled out lots of factors that might undermine their conclusions. After accounting for age, other long-term health problems, and even personality traits, social activity still protected thinking and memory. The benefits of interacting with friends and relations added to the known brain-health benefits of physical activity and cognitive exercises like my mom's habitual crosswords.

The authors list a few limits to the study. For instance, participants had to rely on memory to report their social activities over the year between their checkups. That's a long stretch to cover, trying to account for every social activity, even for a person at their peak brainpower.

Also, participants joined the study at an average age of 80. So this group may be especially healthy survivor-types compared to the general population of older adults. There were far more women participants than men and few minorities in the study. Finally, the researchers caution:

Current social activity in old age may reflect life-long patterns of behavior, changes in lifestyle initiated in later life, or a combination of both....The greatest effect on cognitive health is likely achieved through a lifetime of social activity.

Although my California-based brothers and I would like to see more of my mom, this study makes me glad she's in Houston with her friends and fellow volunteers. Not only is she happier, we've made it easy for her to keep up her life-long brain-healthy social habits.

Related: To be healthier in the new year, resolve to be more social, Does the brain retire at retirement? and Can good friends help you live longer?
Via Newswise
Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simoes

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