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'Social engagement' bolsters brain in older adults, study finds

'Social engagement' bolsters brain in older adults, study finds
Socially engaged older adults have evidence of improved brain health, a new study has found. Photo by Maria Francisca Mayorga/Pixabay

Oct. 19 (UPI) -- Older adults who are more socially engaged show evidence of healthier gray matter in regions of the brain relevant to dementia, according to a study published Monday by the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences.

Study participants who reported being socially active had increased amounts of gray matter in areas of the brain that govern language, attention, concentration, decision-making and information processing, the data showed.

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Higher levels of gray matter -- or the cells that make up the brain's outer layer -- is an indicator of improved cognitive function, the researchers said.

"I would advise my patients to actively participate in various social activities that give [them] a social identity within [their] social network, at least once a week, to keep [their] brain cells healthy," study co-author Dr. Cynthia Felix told UPI.

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"A balanced and structured planning of social activities is very doable even amidst the [COVID-19] pandemic, just as one plans for a healthy diet or physical activity," said Felix, a geriatrician and a post-doctoral associate at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

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Approximately 6 million adults in the United States are living with some form of dementia, or loss of cognitive function, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

Increased physical and social activity has been associated with a lower risk for cognitive decline in older adults, but the exact effects of this "engagement" on the brain remains poorly understood, Felix and her colleagues said.

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For this study, the researchers assessed the level of social engagement in 293 older adult participants -- with an average of 83 -- in the Health Aging and Body Composition study, a U.S. National Institutes of Health-led project focused on risk factors for the decline of function in healthier older persons.

Study participants were scored on a "social engagement index" developed by Felix based on their marital status, daily activities, time spent with friends and family and in the community -- at church or cultural events, for example -- as well as their current involvement in work or volunteer projects.

High scores were awarded to people who were engaged in activities such as playing board games, going to movies, traveling and attending classes, lectures or adult education events.

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The participants then were evaluated by diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging -- a more sensitive scanning approach designed to measure the cellular integrity of brain cells -- to learn what, if any, effect this social engagement had on their brain health.

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Those with higher scores on the social engagement index were found to have more gray matter in six relevant areas of the brain, according to the researchers.

This increased gray matter indicates that these regions of the brain were better able to process information and do so more rapidly, they said. Maintaining the health of gray matter is of critical importance because once these cells die, dementia typically follows, Felix and her colleagues said.

Social engagement with at least one other relative or friend activates specific brain regions needed to recognize familiar faces and emotions, make decisions and feel rewarded, and even moderate "doses" seem to be beneficial, Felix said.

"Older adults should purposefully engage in social interaction with at least one other person, even for as little as once a week, to maintain healthy brain cells," Felix said.

More research is needed, however, to learn the cause-and-effect relationship at work here, and to determine the ideal dose or amount of social engagement, she said.

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