Frequent social activity may help to prevent or delay cognitive decline in old age, according to research conducted at Rush University Medical Center and published online in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.
The study included 1,138 older adults with a mean age of 80 who are participating in the Rush Memory and Aging Project, an ongoing longitudinal study of common chronic conditions of aging. Participants underwent yearly evaluations that included 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 involved social interaction. For example, whether the individuals went to restaurants or sporting events; performed volunteer services; visited relatives or friends; or attended religious services.
Cognitive function was assessed using a battery of 19 tests for various types of memory (episodic, semantic and working memory), as well as perceptual speed and visuospatial ability.
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. On average, 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. Other variables that might have accounted for the increase in cognitive decline—such as age, physical exercise and health—were all ruled out in the analysis.
Researchers said it is unclear why social activity plays a role in the development of cognitive problems. One possibility is 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,’” researchers said.
Future research is needed to determine whether interventions aimed at increasing late-life social activity can play a part in delaying or preventing cognitive decline, the researchers concluded.