Senior citizens who keep busy with family, friends and volunteer work do better in memory tests, a new study has suggested. This means that senior citizens or anyone of any age should socialize to strengthen and keep their memory.
Does it make sense to be more involved and have a more active social life as we age? Yes it does. Being more engaged socially appears to delay memory loss as we grow older, a new study has shown.
The finding, which appears in the July issue of The American Journal of Public Health, suggests that strong social interaction, through friends, family and community groups can enhance our brain health as we age and that social isolation may be an important risk factor for cognitive decline for old folks.
Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health used data gathered from 1998 to 2004 from the Health And Retirement Study, a large, nationally representative population of American adults aged 50 and older.
In the study, participants took memory tests at two-year intervals during the period. Testers read a list of 10 common nouns to survey respondents who were then asked to recall as many words as possible immediately. They did so again after a five-minute delay. The researchers also measured social integration based on marital status, volunteer activities and contact with parents, children and neighbors.
When the results were analyzed, it showed that people in their 50s and 60s who were involved in a lot of social activity also had the slowest rate of memory decline. In fact, compared to those who were the least socially active, study subjects who had the highest social integration scores had less than half the rate of memory loss. The researches looked at age, gender, race and health.
It was interesting that those who had the least number of years of formal education appeared to have he most to gain from an active social life as they aged. The study showed hat the protective effect of social integration was greatest among individuals with fewer than 12 years of education.
“The working hypothesis is that social engagement is what makes you mentally engaged,” said Dr Lisa F Berkman, the study’s lead researcher and director of the Harvard Center For Population And Development Studies.
“You can’t sit and withdraw if you’re constantly talking and working on things and figuring out problems in your daily life. It’s not just completing a crossword puzzle, it’s living your life.”
Hopefully, the results will change the mindset of those who are put in a position to care for an elderly family member. There are many people who erroneously believe that just being there to give moral support to an aged person is enough. But people need to understand that aged people need to be more socially engaged to reap the rewards of good mental health. Old folks need to be encouraged to get involved more socially and engaged at a level that is meaningful both for the individual and the group or community they are involved in.
Such involvement by aged people in a community or group can reap similar memory benefits as engaging in a memory training or using memory techniques to enhance learning and memory skills. It is also definitely more meaningful and has an added side effects – contentment, greater self-esteem, optimism and overall greater self-confidence.
“A lot of people, when they think about the elderly, focus on social support … things like what can I do for my elderly mother,” Dr Berkman said, “But having someone to count on is not what we’re measuring. It’s not about support it’s about being completely engaged and participating in our society.”
What was notable about he study is that participants didn’t have to be married to or surrounded by extensive family to receive the protective effect of social engagement.
“You don’t have to have friends if you have family. If you don’t have family but you have friends, that’s good. If you volunteer to civic organizations that can be a substitute,” Dr Berkman said.
“People don’t have to have all of these things. They just have to have some breadth and diversity in the kinds of networks and ties they have in a community.”