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More Social Engagement for Healthier Brains in Older Adults

Recently published study finds that older people with reported greater levels of social engagement showed to have more robust gray matter, particularly in areas of the brain related to dementia.

The findings, reported in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, suggest that “prescribing” socialization could benefit older adults in warding off dementia, much the way prescribing physical activity can help to prevent diabetes or heart disease.

“Our data were collected before the COVID-19 pandemic, but I believe our findings are particularly important right now, since a one-size-fits-all social isolation of all older adults may place them at risk for conditions such as dementia,” said lead author Cynthia Felix, M.D., M.P.H., a geriatrician and a post-doctoral associate in Pitt Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology.

“Older adults should know it is important for their brain health that they still seek out social engagement in safe and balanced ways during the pandemic.”

The study team gathered information about social engagement from 293 community-dwelling participants from the Health, Ageing and Body Composition (Health ABC) study. The average age of the participants was 83 years old, and received a sensitive brain scan called Diffusion Tensor Imaging MRI that measured the cellular integrity of brain cells used for social engagement.

Detailed information about the elderly’s social engagement was extracted from the participants and was given a score based on the activities using a tool developed by Dr Felix. High scores were awarded to people who did things like play board games; go to movies; travel long distance; attend classes, lectures or adult education events; participate in church or other community activities; get together with children, friends, relatives or neighbours at least once a week; volunteer or work; be married and live with others.

Through this method, the researchers were able to discover that greater social engagement is related to better microstructural integrity of brain gray matter in the older adults who participated. Social engagement with at least one other relative or friend activates specific brain regions needed to recognize familiar faces and emotions, make decisions and feel rewarded.

“We need to do more research on the details, but that’s the beauty of this–social engagement costs hardly anything, and we do not have to worry about side-effects,” Dr Felix said. “There is no cure for dementia, which has tremendous costs in terms of treatment and caregiving. Preventing dementia, therefore, has to be the focus. It’s the ‘use it or lose it’ philosophy when it comes to the brain.”

The causal relationship between social engagement and a healthy brain still remains a question not answered, highlighted Dr Felix. Based on the current findings by the research team, together with evidence from previous research studies, warrants the need for randomized controlled trials to further assess the impact of specific types and amounts of social activities on brain health.

“It would be good if we develop programs across the U.S. through which structured social activities can be prescribed for community-dwelling older adults, aimed at reducing rates of dementia and the resulting health care costs,” Dr Felix said. “Existing platforms providing group physical activities can be a good starting point.” [APBN]