Christmas is coming and many of us are preparing to see friends and family. This may be the right time to keep in mind that socialization is one of the major factors that impact brain health (along with mental stimulation, physical exercise, stress management, and a balanced diet)! Indeed, we know that interacting with other people seems to help the brain function well and stay healthy longer. Many questions are left unanswered though: For instance, do we need a lot of friends or is it the quality of the relationships we have with others that matters?
A few answers
A 2009 study tried to answer these questions by looking at the social habits and cognitive functioning of 838 healthy individuals, 80 years old on average (75% were women).
Social engagement was assessed with measures of social activity frequency, size of social networks, and perceived social support.
To measure frequency of social activity, participants were asked to rate how often during the past year they engaged in six types of activities
that involve social interaction: 1) go to restaurants, sporting events, or play bingo; 2) go on day or overnight trips; 3) do volunteer work; 4) visit relatives’ or friends ; 5) participate in groups ; 6) attend religious services.
To measure the size of social network participants were asked about
the number of children, family, and friends they had and how often they had seen them in the past year.
Social support was assessed with a few items from a standardized scale specifically designed for this purpose.
Cognitive functioning of the participants was assessed with a battery of 19 tests measuring long-term memory, working memory, processing speed, and visuospatial ability.
The researchers then used statistical analyzes to try to understand how each of the 3 measures of social engagement were related to the participants’ level of cognitive functions.
They found that more frequent participation in social activities and a higher level of perceived social support were associated with higher level of cognitive functioning.
Interestingly, social network size was not related to cognitive functioning. This suggests that how satisfying a relationship is matters more than how many relationships one has.
Of course, social activities often also involve some level of physical activity and/or mental activity. The researchers found that even when the role played by physical and intellectual activities was controlled for and eliminated, social engagement was still related to higher cognitive functioning.
One way to keep your brain healthy and high-functioning is to a) participate in social activities, b) build a strong social support network around you, and c) prefer high-quality relationships over numerous superficial ones.
Krueger, K., Wilson, R., Kamenetsky, J., Barnes, L., Bienias, J., Bennett, D. (2009). Social Engagement and Cognitive Function in Old Age. Experimental Aging Research, 35 (1), 45-60.