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Social Activity and Prevention of Cognitive Decline

“Don’t ever get old,” “I’m not what I used to be,” and “I’m old now, I can’t do that.” I think we’ve all at one time or another heard phrases like this coming from older adults. With old age, both body and mind are not as sharp as in times of youth. For instance, before his knee replacement, my grandfather had difficulty simply standing up or walking around his house. His knee replacement has helped him immensely though, and he is much more agile and happier now. Unfortunately, this sometimes-reversible physical deterioration and pain associated with aging is accompanied by potentially crippling declines in cognitive functioning. Important everyday activities like navigating a vehicle in heavy traffic, learning and retaining someone’s name, or remembering to take medication on time all become more difficult to execute in old age. An important question, then, becomes whether or not there are certain behaviors or practices that can help to slow cognitive decline, similar to how my grandfather’s knee replacement helped his physical wellbeing.

In examining this question, psychological research has recently attempted to identify behaviors and practices that act to slow or prevent cognitive decline. This is a very important line of research because if older adults are able to practice behaviors that slow cognitive decline, they will be able to live happier and healthier lives longer into the lifespan.

One highly modifiable behavior that may act to slow cognitive decline or delay its onset is an increased engagement in social activity.  Bryan James and colleagues (2011) conducted research in this domain to determine whether or not there is an association between social activity and rates of cognitive decline. Past research has given some strong preliminary evidence that social activity helps to slow cognitive decline, but these studies have had limitations and have not yielded unequivocal evidence.

James and colleagues (2011) attempted to address previous studies’ limitations and hoped to offer strong evidence that social activity is associated with cognitive functioning. To conduct their research, the researchers recruited 1,138 participants that had an average age of 79 years from the Rush Memory and Aging Project. These individuals did not have dementia at the time of recruitment, and if they developed it over the course of the study, their data were eliminated.

From these participants, the researches obtained two primary measures. The first was a measure of frequency of social activity. Participants were asked to rate on a five-point scale how often they engaged in six common types of social activity. On this scale, responses ranged from (1), meaning you engage in the activity once a year or less, all the way up to (5), indicating you engage in the activity every day or almost every day. The six social activities included (1) going to restaurants, sporting events, or bingo, (2) going on day or overnight trips, (3) doing unpaid community work, (4) visiting a relative or friend’s house, (5) participating in social groups like Knights of Columbus, and (6) attending church or other religious services. The six scores were then averaged together, giving social activity scores ranging from one to five, with higher scores being indicative of more social activity. This measure was taken once, when participants were initially recruited.

The second primary measure the researchers obtained was an assessment of cognitive functioning. Each participant was administered 21 cognitive tests annually for an average of five years, though this figure ranged from 5-13 years. These 21 tests centered around five core domains of cognitive functioning. These included semantic memory, working memory, episodic memory, visuospatial ability, and perceptual speed. Semantic memory refers to memory for facts, meanings, and concepts. Similarly, episodic memory is memory for specific experiences and events. Working memory refers to the temporary storage of information to be manipulated and processed. Visuospatial ability is related to one’s conceptualization of visual representations and objects’ spatial relationships. Finally, perceptual speed is the speed with which one executes mental operations. Scores on each of these tests were compiled to give one measure of general cognitive ability.

In addition to these two main measures, the researchers also measured a number of possible confounding variables. Confounding variables are those whose presence impacts a study’s results by being related to both the variable being manipulated by the researchers and the variable being measured. In this instance, a confounding variable would be related to both social activity and cognitive functioning, and would help to yield results that do not reflect the actual relationship between social activity and cognitive functioning. After measuring these, the researchers were able to incorporate them into their final statistical analyses and determine if they were interfering with the results or not. These possible confounding variables included social circle size, levels of depression, chronic medical conditions, disability, neuroticism, extraversion, frequency of physical activity, and frequency of engaging in cognitively stimulating tasks. Neuroticism refers to the tendency to experience psychological distress, including depression and anxiety (Hertzog et al., 2009). Extroversion refers to interest in or behavior directed towards the external environment.

After obtaining these data, the researchers conducted their statistical analyses to examine the association between social activity and cognitive decline in old age. The results showed that more socially active individuals had higher initial measures of global cognitive functioning, and though they declined with age over the average five years of the study, they declined at a slower rate than those individuals who had low levels of social activity. The researchers concluded that the most socially active participants (those in the 90th percentile on the measure of social activity) experienced only about ¼ the rate of cognitive decline that the least socially active participants (those in the 10th percentile) did. Impressively, this pattern of results held up after all of the potential confounding variables listed above were accounted for. This indicates that the possible confounders were not interfering with theses results. Furthermore, these results were consistent across all five of the different domains of cognitive functioning measured.

Considering how robust these results proved to be, this study provides strong evidence that an increased level of social activity is associated with decreased rates of cognitive decline. This might be because leading a socially active lifestyle leads to physical activity, which promotes improved cardiorespiratory functioning (Hertzog et al., 2009). This would lead to increased oxygen levels in the brain and improved cognitive functioning. Additionally, social interaction may cause older adults to feel as if they are playing a meaningful role in society, which could promote increases in self-efficacy or self-esteem, which in turn might improve cognition.

Overall, the study provides very strong evidence that more socially active older adults experience less cognitive decline in old age. While there are no quick fixes like a knee replacement to magically restore cognitive functioning to what it was in youth, there are clearly strategies that can be implemented to help slow cognitive decline. Among these strategies, engaging in social activity seems to be a very effective way to decreased cognitive decline in old age. Oh, and for those who are not inclined to be socially active, there is some encouraging research showing that engaging in cognitively stimulating activity can also be helpful in delaying and attenuating cognitive decline (Hertzog et al., 2009). So no matter your personality type, there are steps that can be taken to slow cognitive decline, though increasing social activity is a great place to start.


To read the original paper, click here.


James, B. D., Wilson, R. S., Barnes, L. L., & Bennett, D. A. (2011). Late-life social activity and     cognitive decline in old age.  Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 17, 998-1005. doi: 10.1017/S1355617711000531

Hertzog, C., Kramer, A. F., Wilson, R. S., & Lindenberger, U. (2009). Enrichment effects on adult cognitive development. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 1-65.








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  1. December 2nd, 2013 at 23:28 | #1

    This was an intriguing study, and it is interesting to see how thoroughly the researchers conducted the experiment; however, I think the results raise more questions than answers. Is it possible that it’s not the increased social interaction that leads to the prevention of cognitive decline, but instead that cognitive decline leads to decreased social interaction? My grandmother was an extremely friendly and out-going person, but after she began suffering from symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease she began to interact less and less with other individuals. I recognize the difficulties with addressing this question due to practical limitations (we cannot assign causality with an observational study and there would difficulties with carrying out an experiment), but it would be interesting to find out. Also, does the level of peoples’ social activity earlier in life affect their rate of cognitive decline? If a person is an introvert their entire life, will adopting new activities still have the same affect on cognitive decline as a someone who was an extrovert their entire life? If not, I believe this would have huge ramifications on future generations as our nation heads towards more sedentary lifestyles.

    As Sam suggested, it would be interesting to look at how online interactions affect the rate of cognitive decline. Due to the advent of social media, like Facebook and Twitter, and massively multiplayer online video games, like World of Warcraft, I believe it is likely that future generations will carry out increasing amounts of their interactions online. Will these non-face-to-face types of interactions have the same affects as the socially active interactions measured in this study? Online interactions lack the physical aspect and it is possible that they will have different effects on rate of cognitive decline than going to restaurants, churches, or other outings.

  2. Samuel Poulin
    December 2nd, 2013 at 09:28 | #2

    This study is especially powerful because of how thorough it is; the researchers took great care to recruit a lot of participants, control for several confounding variables, and carry out the analysis for several years. You mentioned the potential link between social and physical activity. I think this is really important to consider. Increased levels of social activity often lead to a more active lifestyle as well, and both of these can have a tremendous influence on cognitive performance. It’d be interesting to see how older adults in particularly poor physical condition can reap some of the benefits you talked about. With social media as prevalent as it is today, even among the older generation, I wonder if these types of interactions generate results on par with face-to-face contact. On a similar note, I wonder if having/taking care of pets has comparable long-term benefits. I would think so, but perhaps verbal, human communication is driving some of these results.

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