We humans are living longer. That’s the good news. The bad? After we turn 65, dementia rates double every five years in developed countries. And in developing ones, dementia rates double every seven years. (1) The conclusion seems unavoidable. The longer we live, the more likely we are to suffer dementia. All the more reason to ask dementia researchers, “How can we reduce the chances of getting Alzheimer’s, or some another dementia?”
Here’s part of the answer: Those who socialize the most with others show the lowest rates of cognitive decline and dementia.
The link between socialization and dementia has been explored for a long time. Back in 1850, a physician named Dr. Gray organized some whittling classes for men housed at Utica State Hospital. He wondered if socializing with others in a group setting might improve the men’s symptoms. It did. In 1900, Manhattan State Hospital hired a woman as an Amusement Directress. She organized various social activities for the residents, encouraging them to interact. Several other state hospitals began similar projects. In reviewing all these early developments for a presentation to the American Psychiatric Association in 1937, Dr. O.R. Yoder (a psychiatrist) reported “satisfactory results” were found in all of these programs. (2)
Since then, multiple studies have indicated that socializing with others really does improve brain health. Here are some examples of that research.
In 2007, researchers found a direct connection between socializing and cognitive functioning. In one study, they found a positive correlation between social interaction and general cognitive functioning in three different age groups, including a younger population. And in another, they found that even 10 minutes of socializing improved scores on cognitive performance measurements.(3)
In a very large study of the elderly in Taiwan (2,387 persons), researchers measured the association between socializing and cognitive performance three times over the course of seven years. They found that the more participants socialized, the better their performances on cognitive tasks. If they regularly participated in one or two social activities, they failed 13% fewer cognitive tasks than those engaged in no social activities. And those who participated in three or four social activities failed 33% fewer cognitive tasks. Given the strong family ties among Taiwanese, it is important to note that all the socializing measured in this study was with people who were not family members. Here is a finding that speaks to the risks of dementia: “Those with large social networks were 26% less likely to develop dementia than those with small networks.” (4)
A Harvard University study found a strong link between socializing and memory. They gathered their information from a representative sample of adults over age 50 in the U.S. Every two years, they gave the group a memory test, four tests in all. The test was straightforward and simple. Participants were given a list of ten common nouns and asked to repeat them back immediately, then again after five minutes. To measure socializing, they assessed marital status, volunteer activities, and contact with neighbors, parents, and children. The result: Those who socialized the most remembered the most words from the lists of ten nouns. And the difference was striking: “…those with the highest sociability reported half as much memory loss compared to the least social.” (5)
A group of 2,513 Japanese-American men has been followed since 1965 as part of the Honolulu-Asia Aging Study. Researchers assessed levels of social engagement both at midlife, and again late in life. Who had the highest risk of dementia? In late life, those in the lowest quartile of social engagement had the highest risk of dementia. (6)
And finally, a large study of people over age 70 in a typical town in northeast Italy examined a variety of factors researchers thought might predict cognitive decline in the elderly. Among several findings was this one: the higher the number of social contacts, the better the performance on a variety of cognitive performance tasks.(7)
So, do you want to improve your odds of avoiding cognitive decline or delaying dementia? Many scientists have spoken: Engage socially with others: talk, play, dine, mingle…with friends, neighbors, family. Do so often. The more the better.
(1) Larson, E. B. Prospects for delaying the rising tide of worldwide, late-life dementias.International Psychogeriatrics.
(2) Yoder, O. R. A socialization program in the treatment of dementia praecox (ed: praecox is “premature dementia”). American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation
(3) Ybarra, O., Burnstein, E., & Winkielman P.Mental exercising through simple socializing: Social interaction promotes general cognitive functioning. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
(4) Glei, D. A., Landau, D. A., Goldman, N., Chuang, Y. L., & Weinstein, M. Participating in social activities helps preserve cognitive function: an analysis of a longitudinal, population-based study of the elderly. International Journal of Epidemiology.
(5) Ertel, K. A., Berkman, L., & Glymour, M. Effects of social integration on preserving memory function in a nationally representative US elderly population. American Journal of Public Health.
(6) Saczynaki, J. S., Pfeifer, L. A., Masaki, K., Kork, E. S. C., Lalurin, D., White, L., & Launer, L. J. The effect of social engagement on incident dementia: The Honolulu-Asia Aging Study. American Journal of Epidemiology.
(7) Gallucci, M., Ongaro, A. F., Forloni, P. L., Albani, G. P., Regini, A. C. Physical activity, socialization and reading in the elderly over the age of seventy: What is the relation with cognitive decline? Evidence from “The Treviso Longeva (TRELONG) study.” Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics.
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