Clare Edwards

Stay Sharp and Socialize!

Clare Edwards, Community Education Supervisor, SourcePoint

Your doctor likely has never prescribed social interaction to improve your health, but studies cited in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior suggest that engaging with others may increase lifespan, strengthen the immune system, and even ward off dementia. Older adults are at a higher risk of social isolation than other age groups. Risk factors include living alone, health problems or a disability, or avoidance of social situations due to a sensory impairment. Sometimes people isolate themselves because they are worried about leaving the house due to fear of falling or other health emergency.

According to the National Institute on Aging, “Research suggests a positive correlation between social interaction and health.” Researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Princeton have shown that social engagement is associated with lower levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6) in women over the age of 60. IL-6 is a chemical produced in the body wherever there is inflammation, and tends to increase as we age. It also has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic diseases.

“For helping to prevent memory loss, social engagement is very important,” said Dr. Suzanne E. Salamon, associate chief for clinical geriatrics at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “Talking and interacting with people takes energy and makes you work harder, which stimulates your brain.”

However, Dr. Salamon cautions that it is still somewhat unclear in the research which is the chicken and which is the egg when it comes to dementia and social isolation. Isolation may be a risk factor for declining brain health—or early signs and symptoms of dementia may cause people to slowly withdraw from social situations.

Learning new things and keeping your mind active also may reduce your risk of dementia. You can take up a new hobby, such as quilting or card games, or learn a new language. Brain puzzles—word searches, crosswords, Sudoku, and Cryptoquip—can all help keep your mind sharp as well. One hobby that uses nearly every part of the brain is playing music, because the areas that control vision, hearing, processing, decision making, emotional output, coordination, and movement are all activated. Playing music also can include social interaction if you play with or for other people!

Tell us in the comments how you stay socially active or share something new that you’ve recently tried!

Brain Health Series