New study shows social connections improve brain health

New study shows social connections improve brain health

via Forbes by Bryan Robinson

Keeping your social calendar filled improves your brain health, according to a new study. Older adults who get together with friends, volunteer, or attend classes especially have healthier brains. The new findings, reported in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, suggest that “prescribing” socialization could benefit older adults in warding off dementia, much the way prescribing physical activity can help to prevent diabetes or heart disease. Although this study was conducted before Covid-19, the findings are relevant for all ages during the pandemic when many people suffer from social isolation.

The New Study

Dr. Cynthia Felix and her colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology used information about social engagement from 293 community-dwelling participants from the Health, Aging and Body Composition (Health ABC) study. Study participants, average age 83 years old, also received a sensitive brain scan called Diffusion Tensor Imaging MRI that measures the cellular integrity of brain cells used for social engagement. This study is the first to use a particularly sensitive type of brain imaging to conduct such an evaluation.

The participants provided detailed information about their social engagement, and the researchers scored them awarding high scores to people who did things like play board games; go to movies; travel long distance; attend classes, lectures or adult education events; participate in church or other community activities; get together with children, friends, relatives or neighbors at least once a week; volunteer or work; be married and live with others.

The researchers found participants who reported greater levels of social engagement had more robust gray matter in regions of the brain relevant in dementia. Maintaining brain health is of critical importance. Once brain cells die, dementia typically follows. Social engagement with at least one other relative or friend activates specific brain regions needed to recognize familiar faces and emotions, make decisions and feel rewarded. The good news is that even moderate “doses” seem to be beneficial.

These findings have ramifications for older adults and all ages practicing Covid-19 isolation. “Our data were collected before the Covid-19 pandemic,” said lead author Felix, “but I believe our findings are particularly important right now, since a one-size-fits-all social isolation of all older adults may place them at risk for conditions such as dementia.”

Similar to how large public health studies assess the best programs to encourage physical activity to prevent chronic disease in older people, Felix believes her team’s findings, coupled with previous research, provides justification for randomized control trials to assess the impact of specific types and amounts of social activities on brain health. “There is no cure for dementia, which has tremendous costs in terms of treatment and caregiving,” Felix explained. “Preventing dementia, therefore, has to be the focus. It’s the ‘use it or lose it’ philosophy when it comes to the brain.”

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