New research has found that older adults with greater levels of social engagement have more robust gray matter in regions of the brain relevant to dementia. According to a press release, this is the first study to use a particularly sensitive type of brain imaging to conduct such research.

According to the study, published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, “prescribing” socialization could help older adults ward off dementia, in much the same way that prescribing physical activity can help prevent diabetes or heart disease. Although the data were collected before the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, the authors said the findings could be especially important during ongoing isolation and stay-at-home orders.

“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,” said lead author Cynthia Felix, MD, MPH, in a press release.

The investigators used information about social engagement from 293 community-dwelling participants from the Health, Aging, and Body Composition study. The participants averaged 83 years of age and also received a sensitive brain scan that measured the cellular integrity of brain cells used for social engagement.

The participants provided detailed information about their social engagement and received high scores if they did activities such as play board games; go to the movies; travel long distances; attend classes, lectures, or adult education events; participate in church or other community activities; visit with children, friends, relatives, or neighbors at least once a week; volunteer or work; and be married or live with others.

According to the findings, greater social engagement was related to better microstructural integrity of brain gray matter in older adults. Maintaining brain health is especially important in this population, because once brain cells die, dementia typically follows, the researchers noted.

Social engagement with at least 1 other relative or friend activates specific brain regions necessary to recognize familiar faces and emotions, make decisions, and feel rewarded, according to the press release. 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,” Felix said. “There is no cure for dementia, which has tremendous costs in terms of treatment and caregiving. Preventing dementia, therefore, has to be the focus.”

Felix added that cause and effect still need to be investigated, whether greater social engagement keeps brain regions health or having a healthier brain results in better social engagement. Coupled with previous research, Felix said her team’s findings provide justification for randomized control trials to assess the impact of specific types and amounts of social activities on brain health.

“It would be good if we develop programs across the US 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,” Felix concluded. “Existing platforms providing group physical activities can be a good starting point.”

REFERENCE
Regular social engagement linked to healthier brain microstructure in older adults [news release]. EurekAlert; October 19, 2020. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-10/uop-rse101420.php. Accessed October 22, 2020.