As people age, they often fear a decline in mental abilities, but a recent study suggests that spending time with others might help us stay sharp in old age.
An unpublished study by psychologists Dr. Oscar Ybarra and Dr. Eugene Burnstein of the University of Michigan and Dr. Piotr Winkelmann of the University of Denver found that the more senior adults talked on the phone or visited with friends and relatives, the lower their rates of cognitive impairment.
"The more people are socially engaged, the better off they are cognitively," the report concluded.
Intellectual activities such as crossword puzzles or reading usually are recommended as ways to exercise the brain and perhaps prevent the loss of mental function. The researchers wanted to investigate the extent to which social interactions also might do so. They analyzed data from studies on aging conducted in 1975, 1986 and 1991, and although the studies did not specifically examine the relationship between mental function and socializing, the researchers were able to analyze information on the participants' social activities to draw their conclusions.
"Spending time with others might help maintain mental function because it uses many parts of our brains," says Dr. Charles Weaver, Baylor professor of neuroscience and psychology. The study noted that verbal processing, short-term memory and the ability to anticipate responses are some of the complex mental functions used when we interact with others. Higher-level thinking skills also get a workout when people discuss books and current events during social encounters.
The precise connection between socializing and cognitive function is difficult to determine. For example, individuals not experiencing a decline in mental abilities might be more likely to socialize, while conversely, senior adults who realize they aren't as sharp mentally as before may withdraw from social contact, Dr. Weaver says.
"This is unfortunate because seniors are often more capable mentally than they believe themselves to be," he says. If the study results are confirmed, it might be especially important for seniors beginning to notice a loss of mental sharpness to socialize. "Don't worry if you can't remember someone's name, go to bridge club or play golf," Dr. Weaver says.
Dr. Ybarra, lead author of the study, reports that the finding that social interaction staves off mental decline does not mean that intellectual activities such as doing crossword puzzles or reading are of no value. In fact, he says there is scientific evidence that these activities do indeed enhance cognitive functioning.
"We do not wish to argue that activities such as these do not play a role in keeping the brain and mind healthy," he writes. "Instead, we want to point out that other needs that are quite basic to us, such as being socially connected, by their very nature, when fulfilled, will engage us mentally."
Beal is a lecturer in Baylor's Louise Herrington School of Nursing, where she teaches "The Experience of Illness." She received her BS from Columbia University and her MN from Emory. She is a freelance health and medical writer.