People Do Need People: Social Interaction Boosts Brain Health in Older Age

Article excerpt

Research shows that people with regular social ties demonstrate significantly less cognitive decline when compared to those who are lonely or isolated. Some researchers believe that socialization boosts brain reserve, and is an essential component of a brain-healthy lifestyle.

Relationships. As Barbara Streisand sang, "People...people who need people..." Over the human lifespan, relationships are of paramount importance, but never more so than in middle and older adulthood. Increasingly, both science and personal experience affirm that good relationships are correlated with physical, psychological, and cognitive well-being and longevity (Charles and Mavadadi, 2004).

Socialization, social interaction, and social engagement are terms commonly used in scientific literature to describe relationships, structures, and roles people experience during their lifetimes. These get played out in the social arena-in families, communities, schools, workplaces, and culture-interwoven with goals and activities (Lang and Fingerman, 2004).

Middle and later adulthood present new challenges for remaining socially engaged, as well as exciting opportunities to form and sustain social networks. The motivation is clear: "use it or lose it" applies to social engagement as much as it does to physical well-being.

What Does the Research Tell Us?

Research has shown that people with regular social ties are significantly less likely to demonstrate cognitive decline when compared to those who are lonely or isolated. Laura Carstensen, professor and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, reports (2009) that our social arena "influences not only our happiness in everyday life but the ways in which our brains process information, the levels of hormones circulating in our bodies and our physiological responses to stress."

Some researchers suggest socialization contributes to brain reserve, which is the ability of the brain to function adequately despite physiological evidence of damage. Guest editor and clinical neuropsychologist Paul Nussbaum advocates socialization as an essential component to a brain-healthy lifestyle. He cites studies showing that the brain continues to be influenced in older adulthood by enriched environments, including rich social networks (2009). Exposure to an enriched environment, defined as a combination of more opportunities for physical activity, learning, and social interaction, may produce structural and functional changes in the brain, and influence the rate of neurogenesis in adult hippocampi (Brown et al., 2003).

A review of the literature on socialization and aging research suggests growing evidence that healthy social relationships contribute to positive health outcomes, including cognitive functioning. Among the findings are the following:

* The MacArthur Study of Successful Aging demonstrated that non-genetic factors contribute to health and well-being as people age. People who are socially connected may survive up to 20 percent longer than those who live more isolated lives, and emotional support is associated with lower blood levels of cortisol and better cognitive health (Rowe and Kahn, 1998).

* Social disengagement is a risk factor for cognitive impairment in older people (Bassuk, Glass and Berkman, 1999), and is independently associated with depressive symptoms (Glass et al., 2006).

* Researchers at Kaiser Permanente California found that active social networks are a protective factor for cognitive function (Crooks et al., 2008). Strong social connections and pro-social activities act to reduce the risk or delay the onset of cognitive impairment like dementia and Alzheimer's Disease. The results showed that women with the larger social networks were 26 percent less likely to develop dementia than those with smaller social networks. And women who had daily contact with friends and family cut their risk of dementia by almost half (Diament, 2008). …