Mental exercise and physical activity may be good for the brain, but just being socially active also helps older people maintain cognitive abilities and may reduce the risk of dementia, according to a recent study from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Many studies have found that social activity is beneficial, but there have been lingering questions about cause and effect. That is, perhaps cognitive decline causes social isolation, not the reverse. After all, as memory and thinking start to fail, socializing becomes hard. Perhaps measures of social activity are just markers for mental and physical exercise.
It’s the social activity itself, and the complex interpersonal exchanges it entails, that helps people stay sharp, the researchers concluded. They followed more than 1,100 older people for up to 12 years, testing them periodically. The most socially active people had only 25 percent the rate of cognitive decline, compared to the least social. When the researchers reanalyzed the data to weed out people with the lowest level of cognitive function, and took other steps to rule out “reverse causation,” the findings still held up. They also found that social activity was beneficial independent of physical activity and other factors related to brain function, such as age and overall health.