BOSTON — Humans are naturally social beings. While behavioral scientists believe our social nature was likely born out of necessity at first, it has stayed with us for thousands of years and is an undeniable part of the human experience. Maintaining an active social life has long been linked to promoting happiness, but a new study finds another reason to get off the couch next Saturday night: staying social late in life may be key to avoiding the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, particularly among those most at risk.
Researchers with Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that low social engagement among elderly men and women, combined with high levels of the key brain protein associated with Alzheimer’s, was linked to a steep cognitive decline over the course of three years.
“Social engagement and cognitive function are related to one another and appear to decline together,” explains senior author Nancy Donovan, MD, in a release. “This means that social engagement may be an important marker of resilience or vulnerability in older adults at risk of cognitive impairment.”
In all, 217 men and women between the ages of 63 and 89 were investigated for the study. All of the participants were cognitively normal, but some exhibited high levels of amyloid-β, a protein associated with the development of Alzheimer’s. Each participants’ level of social engagement was measured using standard questionnaires and examinations that asked about activities such as spending time with friends and participating in volunteer work. Each person’s cognitive performance was assessed once at the beginning of the study and again three years later.
The results indicate that staying social during elderly years is especially important for those already showing signs of developing Alzheimer’s; among the participants that showcased higher levels of amyloid-β, those who had low social activity exhibited much greater cognitive decline than those who were routinely leaving the house and seeing other people. Researchers say that those with low levels of amyloid-β did not show the same link between cognitive deterioration and social activity.
Donovan and her team say they did not account for more intricate forms of social behavior such as social media or online communications, and would like to conduct a more comprehensive study in the future that would cover a longer time period. “We want to understand the breadth of this issue in older people and how to intervene to protect high-risk individuals and preserve their health and well-being,” Donovan says.
The study is published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.