Socializing (even by phone) can improve mental performance among older adults

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Working from home and staying inside has become second nature to many people over the last two years. A new study, however, is warning not to get too comfortable with an inactive social life. Researchers from Penn State report maintaining an active social life into old age can help adults improve their mental ability on a day-to-day basis.

The study concludes that when elderly adults (between 70 and 90 years-old) have more frequent and pleasant social interactions, they also display stronger cognitive functioning over the next few days.

“Our study is one of the first to show that whether you have social interactions on one day can immediately affect your cognitive performance that same day and also on the following days,” says study leader Ruixue Zhaoyang, assistant research professor of the Center for Healthy Aging at Penn State, in a media release. “The fact that we found that the cognitive benefits of having pleasant social interactions could manifest over such a short time period was a happy surprise and could be a promising area for future intervention studies.”

Finding ways to hold off Alzheimer’s

Dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease specifically, is a major problem worldwide, with estimates showing it will only get worse. While roughly six million Americans currently live with Alzheimer’s, health officials project that number to grow to 13 million by 2050. Worryingly, Alzheimer’s related deaths have increased by 16 percent since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Making matters worse is the fact that modern medicine has yet to develop an effective drug for curing Alzheimer’s. With this in mind, study authors say it’s imperative to find other ways to fight mental decline in old age – especially before it reaches the clinical stage.

“Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias impose substantial burdens on patients as well as their family and caregivers,” Prof. Zhaoyang adds. “It’s important to find modifiable risk factors for cognitive decline before they progress to the clinical stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Social isolation later in life is one risk factor for dementia, and also one we have some control over.”

Your brain is happy to see family again

The team collected data on 312 older adults over the course of 16 days using their smartphones to reach these findings. Each day, participants reported on how many social interactions they’d had so far, who they interacted with, and whether it was a positive or negative experience. The group did this five separate times throughout the day. Importantly, researchers counted digital or phone-based interactions as social activity in this experiment.

Additionally, after each prompt seniors also had to complete three cognitive tests. One test assessed processing speed and attention, another measured spatial working memory, and the last exam measured intra-item feature memory binding.

Researchers quickly noted that whenever a person had interacted often with close friends on a given day, they usually scored higher on the cognitive tests than others who interacted less frequently with close friends or family.

Interestingly, whenever an older adult hadn’t experienced a certain type of social interaction for some time, they performed much better on cognitive tests on the days they did socialize. For instance, if one participant hadn’t talked to their family in weeks, they usually scored higher on days they finally made contact.

“Our findings suggest that the lack of positive social interactions in daily life could be a critical risk factor for declining cognitive function later in life,” Prof. Zhaoyang concludes. “Older adults who are relatively more deprived in certain social interaction experiences could potentially benefit the most from interventions that help to ‘boost’ their usual levels of social interactions in daily life.”

The study is published in PLoS ONE.