Socializing Improves Older Adults’ Cognitive Function in Daily Life

Researchers found that when adults between the ages of 70 and 90 reported more frequent, pleasant social interactions, they also had better cognitive performance on that day and the following two.

– Penn State

According to recent study, socializing is critical for mental health and well-being, as well as improving cognition, particularly in older people. The researchers at Penn State’s Center for Healthy Aging, headed by assistant professor Ruixue Zhaoyang, discovered that when individuals between the ages of 70 and 90 reported more frequent, pleasant social contacts, they also had higher cognitive function on that day and the following two. According to Zhaoyang, the results — which were just published in the journal PLOS ONE — may be of particular interest today because of mitigating efforts for social distance used during the COVID-19 epidemic.

When people have social contacts on one day, it affects their cognitive function the next, according to Zhaoyang’s findings. Having good social interactions had a positive effect on cognitive functioning, and this was a pleasant surprise. This may be a potential topic for future intervention research. In the United States, more than six million people have Alzheimer’s disease, and that figure is projected to increase to almost 13 million by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia-related mortality have increased by 16% during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well.

Since there are currently no effective pharmacological treatments, Zhaoyang stressed the need of finding methods to help prevent these diseases before they reach the clinical phase. According to Zhaoyang, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia place a heavy strain on both the sufferer and those who care for them. “Cognitive decline may be slowed by identifying risk factors that can be changed before it reaches the clinical stages of Alzheimer’s disease. One risk factor for dementia later in life is social isolation, which we can do something about.” The study relied on smartphone data gathered over a 16-day period from 312 elderly participants. We asked them how many social contacts they had, who they interacted with, and whether it was a good or bad experience five times throughout that day. Both digital and in-person interactions, such as phone calls and texts, were included in the analysis.

After each check-in, participants took three cognitive tests on their mobile devices. To find out how quickly and attentively people absorb information, one test looked at their spatial working memory while the other tested their ability to link intra-item features in their brains. Older individuals who engaged more often with friends and family members scored better on cognitive tests than those who interacted less frequently with intimate relationships, according to the study’s findings. They also discovered that when older people didn’t get specific kinds of social interaction on a regular basis, they did better intellectually on days when they did. On days when they had more than normal interaction with their family, for example, a person who didn’t have much touch with family had an increase in cognition. It seems that a lack of socialization may impair cognition, but Zhaoyang believes that the research also reveals a potential for future treatments. A lack of good social contacts in everyday life may be a risk factor for cognitive decline in old age, according to Zhaoyang’s research. “Interventions that assist ‘raise’ the normal levels of social contacts in everyday life may possibly benefit older people who are comparatively more deficient in specific social interaction experiences.”

Journal Reference: Ruixue Zhaoyang, Stacey B. Scott, Lynn M. Martire, Martin J. Sliwinski. Daily social interactions related to daily performance on mobile cognitive tests among older adultsPLOS ONE, 2021; 16 (8): e0256583 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0256583

Categories: Clinical