Many scientists now believe that social interaction is key to maintaining good mental health and warding off diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s. Many recent studies document the positive effects of social interaction. Although researchers are not certain what happens in the brain to produce the positive effects seen among the more socially engaged, it appears clear that close relationships and large social networks have a beneficial impact on memory and cognitive function as people age.
In a study of 2,249 California women published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers reported that older women who maintained large social networks reduced their risk of dementia and delayed or prevented cognitive impairment. “If you stay connected, you have a better shot,” says Valerie Crooks, clinical trials administrative director at Southern California Kaiser Permanente Medical Group and lead author of the study. “Whenever we have even the most basic exchange, we have to think about how to respond, and that stimulates the brain. There are people who are outliers, who have two very close relationships and are fine cognitively. But people who have three or more relationships tend to do better.”
“It’s important to act engaged in your environment, be it through learning, social interaction, or exercise,” says Denise Park, a psychologist and director of the Productive Aging Laboratory at the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas, Dallas. “I think what we’ll find out is that what’s bad is sitting home alone in a quiet room watching television.”
At Home Care Assistance Columbus, we help clients rediscover the pleasures they used to enjoy, whether it’s helping them attend an exercise program at the senior center with dozens of others or spending a quiet day at the Columbus Museum of Art. Park hypothesizes that social interaction, like mental exercises and learning, may limit the amount of time that the aging brain can remain unfocused, in a daydream-like state. Her theory is that older people have more difficulty switching between daydreaming and focused attention to important details.
Whatever the process is that allows social interaction to protect the aging brain—and scientists are only beginning to understand it. Watch for more good research to come! Friendships are golden.