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Why You Probably Shouldn’t Cancel Your Plans

You’re going to get old no matter what, but how you get old is a completely different story. Aging involves a lot of changes. To name a few, our hair may become grey, our hearing slowly gets worse, and reading a menu in dimly lit restaurants becomes a well fought battle. You’re probably thinking to yourself, “wow, aging sounds awful!” Sure, it kind of stinks to know that our cognitive processes will inevitably decline as we age (wow what a downer!) but the truth is, it’s just a normal part of life. In fact, it means you’ve lived an entire life of experiences (congratulations!). Furthermore, there are actually ways to prevents certain age related changes. In other words, the idea of getting older doesn’t have to scare you.

Aging process of a man from young to elderly (image from study.com)

When we get older, our cognitive abilities change and, in some ways, don’t operate as they once did. Cognitive abilities include things like attention, memory, language, speed of processing (how quickly you can comprehend information) and much more. They are crucial for everything we do; however, they can change over time which is why it is important to work on maintaining these functions. As mentioned earlier, there are strategies that can be used to slow, or improve the effects of aging. A really great way to maintain your abilities is actually through socializing with other people. Yup, it’s as fun as it sounds. By hanging out with your friends, family, or anyone else in your life, you’re actually helping yourself in the long run.

Social relationships are a great strategy for maintaining cognitive functions because they require you to use all of your mental abilities quite frequently. By engaging in various relationships, you’re getting exposed to different ideas, conversations, stimuli, and activities. You learn so much from the people around you. This is why it is important to surround yourself with people from diverse backgrounds (Fingerman et al., 2021). Different people make you think about and do different things. For example, your relationship with your childhood friend may involve a lot of reminiscing, and therefore using your memory. Meanwhile, another relationship might involve complex thinking and problem solving. These are two different relationships that use cognitive functions in different ways. It has been found that by having diverse types of people to engage with, we experience slower cognitive decline when we get older (Ellwardt et al., 2014). Therefore, socializing isn’t just about hanging out with friends but it’s also about talking to professors, colleagues, family members or even the barista at a coffee shop.

Social relationships make you feel good. (Image from imgflp.com)

One area where you can see social relationships helping cognitive aging is in terms of attention. When you hang out with your friends, you try to eliminate distractions and focus on what your friends are doing / saying. You try not to think about the exam that’s coming up next week, or the beeping coming from a truck passing by. Instead, you just want to pay attention to your friends. Therefore, attention is an important tool for relationships. Older adults often experience attentional changes such as difficulty focusing and inhibiting distractions (Kramer et al., 2006). In other words, divided attention can become more challenging. So, it is important to work on maintaining your attention and focus. By spending time with friends, you are practicing using attention. So, socializing is a great, and often fun, way to do maintain attention!

This is an actual theory called the “use it or lose it” hypothesis. The general gist is that by participating in everyday activities and doing intellectual things, you protect yourself from having cognitive issues as you get older (Hultsch et al., 1999). In other words, if you don’t use cognitive skills, you will find them more difficult to use as time progresses. Use it or you’ll lose it! Socializing is a great example of one of these “everyday activities.” Essentially, socializing makes you keep using cognitive skills, and this helps you maintain your cognitive abilities later in life.

Let’s think of the “use it or lose it” hypothesis in another context. If you like running, you need to run pretty frequently. If you stop running for long periods of time, then you might start to get worse at it. While running a couple of miles would be effortless and easy before, after stopping you now would struggle to run the same distances. If you kept running consistently, then you would maintain your ability to run far. In terms of aging, socializing helps us practice using our cognitive processes by putting us in situations where they are necessary. If you stop socializing, you are no longer practicing these skills. It makes sense that they would therefore start to change at a faster rate due to this. Since you stopped using your cognitive skills, they start to be more difficult to use. But, if you use cognitive skills a lot by socializing, you will maintain them much better in later life.

Spending time with friends has positive effects! (Image from smithsonianmag.com)

If socializing can help us age better, can the opposite make us age worse? Yup. Loneliness and social isolation are actually two factors that can negatively impact our cognitive aging. Loneliness can be defined as the feeling of being alone, whereas social isolation is actually physically being by yourself. A study done over the course of many years looked at the association between social isolation and cognitive functioning (Evans et al., 2019). The participants who spent the least amount of time in isolation maintained their cognitive functioning the best. In other words, isolating yourself can mean a more rapid change of your cognitive processes. It is important to make sure you aren’t experiencing high amounts of social isolation and instead spending time with others. Even if you don’t consider yourself a particularly extroverted person who likes to socialize with tons of people, that’s okay! Social relationships are all relative, and as long as you engage with others in some sort of way, you are still socializing.

Image by Kate Rogers

Picture this, you just got home after a long day of school or work and all you want to do is curl up in bed and fall asleep as early as possible. You’re just turning off the lights when suddenly you get a text from your friends saying, “do you still want to hang out later?” You’re about to respond and cancel when suddenly you remember this blog post. You remember that by meeting up with them you’ll be helping the older version of yourself maintain their cognitive abilities like memory, attention, and language. Socializing can and WILL have extremely positive effects on your life. So, if you’re thinking about cancelling on that plan you made with a friend last week… you probably shouldn’t.

Works Cited

Fingerman, K., Huo, H., Ng, Y., & Zarit, S. (2020). Social Relationships and Cognitive Development in Adulthood. The Cambridge Handbook of Cognitive Aging: A Life Course Perspective. 350-366.

Hultsch, R., Hertzog, D., Small, C., Dixon, B. (1999). Use it or lost it: engaged lifestyle as a buffer of cognitive decline in aging? Psychology and Aging. 14(2), 245-263. https://psycnet.apa.org/buy/1999-05372-006

I. Evans, A. Martyr, R. Collins, C. Brayne, L. Clare. (2019). Social isolation and cognitive function in later life: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. 70(1), 119-144. https://content.iospress.com/articles/journal-of-alzheimers-disease/jad180501

Kramer, A. F., & Kray, J. (2006). Aging and Attention. In E. Bialystok & F. I. M. Craik (Eds.), Lifespan cognition: Mechanisms of change (pp. 57–69). Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195169539.003.0005

L. Ellwardt, T. G. Van Tilburg, M. J. Aarsten., (2014). The mix matters: Complex personal networks relate to higher cognitive functioning in old age. Social Science and Medicine. 125, 107-115. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.05.007

Seeman, T. E., Lusignolo, T. M., Albert, M., & Berkman, L. (2001). Social relationships, social support, and patterns of cognitive aging in healthy, high-functioning older adults: MacArthur Studies of Successful Aging. Health Psychology, 20(4), 243–255. https://doi.org/10.1037/0278-6133.20.4.243

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