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Social Engagement Promotes Brain Health in Older Adults, Research Shows

drawing of old people playing cards together

Alison Czinkota / Verywell

 

Key Takeaways

  • Older adults who remained more socially engaged showed more robust gray matter in areas related to dementia, a recent study suggests.
  • Loneliness and isolation have been considered major risk factors for early mortality for seniors in previous research.
  • There are many ways to help older adults feel connected, experts note, and these can have long-term benefits.

Older people who report higher levels of social engagement show more gray matter in regions of the brain associated with dementia risk, according to research published in the Journal of Gerontology.

Researchers looked at 293 participants of a larger initiative called the Health, Aging and Body Composition study, which has collected data since 1997 about the factors that may lead to decline of function in healthier older people.

Averaging about 83 years old, participants receive brain scans and also report on habits such as nutrition, social interactions, and physical activity. In addition, participants report major health events such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and cancer.

Focusing on social engagement habits, researchers found those who reported regular, frequent socializing also had better microstructural integrity of gray brain matter.

Understanding Gray Matter

Gray matter has been highlighted in previous research, particularly related to Alzheimer's disease. In a study published in Scientific Reports , researchers noted that Alzheimer's is characterized by amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles that accumulate in gray matter, and can lead to destruction of brain cells. 

Those type of discoveries have led to efforts around finding better ways to preserve gray matter, and research suggests some strategies may be:

  • Meditation
  • Cardiovascular exercise
  • Learning new skills
  • Getting quality sleep

Adding social engagement to this list makes sense, says lead author of the current study, Cynthia Felix, M.D., M.P.H, a geriatrician at the University of Pittsburgh.

"There's no cure for dementia, which is why we need to focus on prevention as much as possible, and slowing the progression if it does occur," she says, adding that other healthy habits such as regular activity could make prevention efforts even more powerful.

For example, Felix suggests, group exercise that's fun for older participants and has a social element would incorporate multiple types of prevention.

Your Brain on Social Engagement

In terms of the mechanism and why socializing would work, Felix says that is fodder for subsequent research. For instance, she says, we don't yet know if greater social engagement itself keeps brain regions healthy, or if it's the other way around—that those with healthier brains tend to be more social.

It's possible it could even be both, that a healthy brain makes you socialize more and that, in turn, gives your brain a boost.

What is known from previous research is that there are specific neuropeptides—oxytocin and arginine vasopressin—that help regulate social behavior, and when those are lacking, people tend to have higher risk for issues like social anxiety disorder.

Oxytocin, in particular, is so strongly associated with social bonding that it's sometimes called "the love hormone." Recently, a study on mice in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications suggested that oxytocin should be considered for treatments to reverse the damage caused by amyloid plaques, which could help slow or prevent Alzheimer's in the future.

Finding Connection

One notable aspect of the study, Felix adds, is when it was done: before COVID-19. Now that many older people find themselves more isolated from friends and family as a way to prevent virus exposure, she's concerned that lack of social engagement may lead to a ripple effect of higher dementia risk in the near future.

Dana Dorfman, PhD, MSW

Even before COVID, there was ample evidence that loneliness and isolation had major, negative health effects, especially for older people. Now, more than ever, it's important to reach out and counteract those feelings.

— Dana Dorfman, PhD, MSW

However, social engagement doesn't always need to be done in person, says psychotherapist Dana Dorfman, PhD, MSW. Although being able to hug each other does cause a surge in oxytocin—leading to those brain benefits—there is also value in simply making sure older people feel heard and loved, she says.

"Even before COVID, there was ample evidence that loneliness and isolation had major, negative health effects, especially for older people," she notes. "Now, more than ever, it's important to reach out and counteract those feelings."

Efforts can include:

  • Helping older adults use online social media tools
  • Exchanging calls and letters
  • Enlisting family and friends for regular calls
  • Playing a favorite game online
  • Schedule regular virtual visits with family
  • Invite older adults to a book club or discussion group

What This Means for You

Feeling engaged and connected can go a long way toward boosting an older person's mood, as well as energy levels, sense of self-worth, and feeling of purpose. Do your best to get a little socialization in wherever you can, even if it's just a phone call or a socially distanced walk—it could lead to more robust brain health in the long run.

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  1. Felix C, Rosano C, Zhu X, Flatt J, Rosso A. Greater social engagement and greater gray matter microstructural integrity in brain regions relevant to dementiaJournals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. 2020. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbaa173

  2. Jang H, Kwon H, Yang JJ, et al. Correlations between gray matter and white matter degeneration in pure alzheimer’s disease, pure subcortical vascular dementia, and mixed dementiaSci Rep. 2017;7(1):9541. Published 2017 Aug 25. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-10074-x

  3. Takahashi J, Yamada D, Ueta Y, et al. Oxytocin reverses Aβ-induced impairment of hippocampal synaptic plasticity in miceBiochem Biophys Res Commun. 2020;528(1):174-178. doi:10.1016/j.bbrc.2020.04.046