Key to preserving a healthy brain in old age may be social engagement

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Doctors regularly tell seniors to stay active because it’s good for their bodies and overall health. A new study finds getting out and being around other people is also good for your brain’s fitness too, particularly in old age. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health say more social engagement leads to having more gray matter in regions of the brain tied to dementia.

Gray matter is the darker tissue in the brain and spinal cord which is mainly composed of nerves cells. It plays a vital role in controlling muscular and sensory function throughout the body. Gray matter, along with white matter, also plays a role in higher learning, memory, and thought. Study authors say having more of this important material build up can help fight diseases which kill off brain cells.

“Our data were collected before the COVID-19 pandemic, but I believe our findings are particularly important right now, since a one-size-fits-all social isolation of all older adults may place them at risk for conditions such as dementia,” lead author Cynthia Felix from Pitt Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology says in a university release. “Older adults should know it is important for their brain health that they still seek out social engagement in safe and balanced ways during the pandemic.”

What kind of socializing helps the brain?

Felix and her team examined information about 293 participants in the Health, Aging and Body Composition (Health ABC) study. The seniors had an average age of 83. Each also received sensitive brain scans measuring the integrity of cells in the brain regions active during social interactions.

Felix developed a score for grading how well different activities affect these regions. Researchers gave high marks for people who participated in board games, went to movies, took long trips, attended educational events, and were active in church or other community outings. Visiting with children, friends, or other relatives at least once a week also received high scores.

The results reveal more social engagement shows a link to better microstructural integrity of the brain’s gray matter. Once these brain cells die off in large amounts, dementia typically sets in.

“We need to do more research on the details, but that’s the beauty of this–social engagement costs hardly anything, and we do not have to worry about side-effects,” Felix adds. “There is no cure for dementia, which has tremendous costs in terms of treatment and caregiving. Preventing dementia, therefore, has to be the focus. It’s the ‘use it or lose it’ philosophy when it comes to the brain.”

Making social engagement a public health priority

The study points out that a direct cause for this brain building needs to be found, but Felix says the results prove public health officials need to focus on keeping seniors active and connected. This is especially critical in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic has kept many older adults isolated indoors for several months.

“It would be good if we develop programs across the U.S. through which structured social activities can be prescribed for community-dwelling older adults, aimed at reducing rates of dementia and the resulting health care costs,” the geriatrician and a post-doctoral associate concludes. “Existing platforms providing group physical activities can be a good starting point.”

The study appears in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.

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