How Social Life Affects Brain Health
Could having a great social life in old age prevent memory loss and brain diseases? Researchers say, yes.
A Centurion’s Secret to Great Mental Health
Edith Smith is a gregarious 103-year-old who says the secret to her youthfulness and longevity are her beloved friends, some of whom she’s known for more than 7 decades! One of her friends, Johnetta, is 101 years old and has Alzheimer’s but Smith calls her every day to ask how she’s doing – despite the fact that Johnetta can no longer recognize any of her friends.
Another one of Smith’s close friends is Katie whose house she drives up to every day with homemade jams and other baked goods that Smith makes herself, and the two sit and talk for hours on end over several cups of tea. The 103-year-old identifies herself as a friendly, social person who likes being in good company – could this be the secret to her great mental and physical health?
Research Investigates Link Between Social Relationships and Cognitive Well-Being
A recent study proved that, despite being more than a hundred years old, Smith’s extraordinary memory isn’t just a coincidence; there is an evident link between the relationships around her and her mental health. Researchers at Northwestern University have been carefully studying super-agers like Smith who are able to live for over 80 years without suffering from Alzheimer’s, Dementia or other brain diseases linked with old age.
Every year, a group of super-agers with memory as good as people 2 or 3 decades younger than them, go through a series of evaluations including brain scans, neuropsychological and neurological tests as well as surveys with questions about their lives.
Emily Rogalski, the lead researcher from Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, says that, at first, she was skeptical about finding such individuals who were older than 80 years old and had exceptional memory. But surprisingly, more than 30 super-agers turned up from different states to participate in the study and now Rogalski and her team are curious to see why these participants are different than many others of their age.
Do Super-Agers Have a Superior Brain Structure?
There have been studies conducted on super-agers before which revealed that their brain structure is different than others, having features like bigger left anterior cingulate, important for memory retention, and thicker cortex which prevents brain degeneration due to old age. But it isn’t just the distinctive brain structure that sets these super-agers apart from the rest. Rogalski found out through her research that several other important factors also play a role in strengthening these super-agers’ memory.
The 31 super-ager participants in the study all had one thing in common: they were highly social beings having several positive relationships in their lives. 19 other participants in the study over the age of 80 with normal cognitive function didn’t social as much as their super-ager peers. Rogalski said that the social aspect of our lives is crucial for our emotional and cognitive well-being which can delay the onset of old age.
What researchers are really curious to find out is how these super-agers are able to maintain their social life despite the old age and their experiences could serve as a lesson for others who face a risk of cognitive impairment or dementia.
Cognitive Decline Could be Prevented with Better Social Interaction
Smith is also one of the super-ager participants in the study whose remarkable cognitive health has intrigued researchers. She says that she is one of the most active members of her retirement community who is responsible for welcoming new-comers into the retirement home and get to know them better.
The administrators at Bethany Retirement Community where Smith resides, say that the centurion is a force to be reckoned with. Smith keeps herself involved in a number of community activities and tries to communicate with everyone around her. It seems like she’s well on her way to live for another century!
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