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Social engagement linked to healthier brain structure

A new study suggests that people who are socially active have improved brain structure. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health found that older adults who report greater levels of social engagement have a healthier volume of gray matter in brain regions associated with reasoning, memory loss, and dementia. 

The findings suggest that socialization could be “prescribed” to help protect older adults from dementia similar to how physical activity is recommended for preventing diabetes or heart disease.

“Our data were collected before the COVID-19 pandemic, but I believe our findings are particularly important right now, since a one-size-fits-all social isolation of all older adults may place them at risk for conditions such as dementia,” said study lead author Cynthia Felix. 

“Older adults should know it is important for their brain health that they still seek out social engagement in safe and balanced ways during the pandemic.”

The research was focused on relevant data from 293 individuals with an average age of 83 who participated in the Health, Aging and Body Composition (Health ABC) study. The participants received a brain scan that measured the cellular integrity of brain cells used for social engagement.

Based on self-reported levels of social activity, the participants were ranked on a scale developed by Dr. Felix. High scores were obtained by people who participated in church or community activities, traveled over long distances, played board games, attended classes or educational events, volunteered, worked, or lived with others. Individuals also received high scores for getting together with children, friends, relatives, or neighbors at least once a week.

The study revealed that social engagement was associated with greater microstructural integrity of gray matter. Social engagement with at least one relative or friend was found to activate specific brain regions that are needed to recognize familiar faces, make decisions, and feel rewarded. The experts report that even moderate “doses” of social engagement appear to be beneficial.

“We need to do more research on the details, but that’s the beauty of this – social engagement costs hardly anything, and we do not have to worry about side-effects,” said Dr. Felix. “There is no cure for dementia, which has tremendous costs in terms of treatment and caregiving. Preventing dementia, therefore, has to be the focus. It’s the ‘use it or lose it’ philosophy when it comes to the brain.”

According to Dr. Felix, it is still not clear whether greater social engagement keeps these brain regions healthy, or if having a healthy brain results in higher levels of social engagement.

“It would be good if we develop programs across the U.S. through which structured social activities can be prescribed for community-dwelling older adults, aimed at reducing rates of dementia and the resulting health care costs. Existing platforms providing group physical activities can be a good starting point.”

The study is published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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