Social Time

How social connections save lives

Higher levels of social interaction—even peripheral interactions—can have a high payoff for elderly folks, says Bryan James, an epidemiologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago. Although he doesn’t study social capital the way Michael does—as an overall community trait—James does study the impact of greater social activity levels in individuals and its impact on health.

In one study, James looked at how social activity affected cognitive decline. Over 1100 seniors without dementia at baseline were measured on their social activity levels and then tested periodically on their cognitive functioning over a 12-year period. The rate of cognitive decline was 70 percent less in people with frequent social contact than those with low social activity.

“When you use your brain and body the way it was intended—as it evolved—you age better,” says James. “We just aren’t meant to be disengaged from one another.”

In another study, James looked at a community-based cohort of older people free of dementia and measured social activity levels and their disability levels—in terms of their ability to care for themselves. Findings showed that those with more frequent social activity maintained lower levels of disability in several areas, suggesting that they would be able to live independently longer than their less social counterparts.

“The predominant theory is use it or lose it, “ says James. “Social activity is related to motor function, just like physical exercise is related. We can’t determine which is most important—they each contribute a piece of the puzzle.”

His results are truly dramatic. Even when he and his colleagues statistically control for risk factors like smoking or a history of disease, they still find that someone with high levels of social activity has 43 percent less disability than someone who has low levels of social activity, and about half the rate of cognitive decline.

Communities high in social capital offer a lot to seniors, because they can augment opportunities for seniors to have those kinds of social connections. “If you are in a more cohesive neighborhood, you will more likely engage with others in your neighborhood,” says Michael, and that can bring great benefits socially and otherwise.

Older Adults and the Importance of Social Interaction

As you get older and retire or move to a new community, you may not have quite as many opportunities to socialize as you did when you were younger.

If you're not heading to an office or getting out and about each day, you may be missing out on important social interaction that you need to stay sharp, healthy, and maybe even ward off dementia. Research has shown that social interaction offers older adults many benefits. Staying socially active and maintaining interpersonal relationships can help you maintain good physical and emotional health and cognitive function.

People who continue to maintain close friendships and find other ways to interact socially live longer than those who become isolated. Relationships and social interactions even help protect against illness by boosting your immune system.


The benefits of being social

Specific health benefits of social interaction in older adults include:

Potentially reduced risk for cardiovascular problems, some cancers, osteoporosis, and rheumatoid arthritis

Potentially reduced risk for Alzheimer's disease
Lower blood pressure
Reduced risk for mental health issues such as depression

Conversely, social isolation carries real risks. Some of these risks are:

Feeling lonely and depressed
Being less physically active
Having a greater risk of death
Having high blood pressure

Social interaction helps keep your brain from getting rusty, but it's most effective when coupled with an overall healthy lifestyle, including a nutritious diet and physical activity.

Keeping your connections strong

Start by staying in touch with friends and family, and try to visit with them regularly. Here are other ways you can maintain a high level of social interaction:

Volunteer in your community.
Visit a senior center and participate in offered activities with other seniors—this is a great way to make new friends.
Join a group focused on activities you enjoy, such as playing cards or a book club.
Try taking a class—learn a new language or a new style of cooking or experiment with a new hobby.
Join a gym or fitness center to stay physically fit and engage with others.

Find ways to stay young at heart, stimulated, busy—and out of the house. Schedule regular visits with grandkids or volunteer at a school or children's organization to enjoy time with little ones and absorb some of their youthful energy.

Although staying in touch in person is important, phone calls, snail mail, and e-mail can keep you connected, too—if you're not yet comfortable with computers, ask a young relative to help you.

Staying socially active and maintaining your relationships are an important part of healthy aging. Reach out to your loved ones—neighbors, friends, family members—and stay as vibrant, active, and social as you've always been.