The Important Benefit Being Social Has On Older Adults

While the ideal picture of growing older often includes a cute, long-married couple walking hand-in-hand on a beach at sunset (said image provided, most likely, by a TV commercial hawking some type of pharmaceutical product), marriage itself does not guarantee happy, healthy senior years. The fact is, some people may well find their "golden years" to be tarnished by unhappy relationships, and studies show that single women actually lived longer, and likely more stress-free lives than their married counterparts. Dr. Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist with Massachusetts General Hospital, says it's not just women who may be better off single, as "living in conflict, such as in a high-conflict marriage, is bad for your health" (via Harvard Health Publishing).

That being said, though, science has shown, time and again, that what really benefits older adults (and younger ones, too) is maintaining some sort of social connection. Waldinger warns, "People who are more isolated than they want to be are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain function declines sooner, and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely. People who are more socially connected to family, friends, and community are happier, healthier, and live longer than people who are less well connected."

Social activity may help prevent dementia

A new study performed by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh used brain imaging to examine nearly 300 residents of senior communities with an average age of 83. What they found was interesting: evidently interacting with one friend or relative would activate those brain areas needed for recognizing not only people but familiar emotions as well as for making decisions. While this interaction cannot cure or reverse cognitive impairment, it may have a hand in preventing dementia (via HealthDay).

Dr. Cynthia Felix, a geriatrician at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health warns, "There is no cure for dementia, which has tremendous costs in terms of treatment and care-giving." She goes on to say that current research is focused on preventing this condition.

The Pitt research team was unable to establish conclusively whether social engagement is what keeps older brains healthy or having a healthy brain is what leads to more social interaction. Nonetheless, they felt there was enough of a link between socializing and brain health to suggest that older patients be "prescribed" social activity in much the same way that patients in poor physical health are prescribed diet modification and exercise to prevent disease. According to Felix, "Older adults should know it is important for their brain health that they still seek out social engagement." She goes on to say that "the beauty of this [is that] social engagement costs hardly anything, and we do not have to worry about side effects."