Volunteering, family ties forestall mental declines

Harvard School of Public Health researchers Karen Ertel, Lisa Berkman, and Maria Glymour, in a paper to appear in the July 2008 issue of American Journal of Public Health, found that an active social life forestalled memory losses. Before you get too excited, they didn’t find that an active party life was associated with the same beneficial impact!

The study of nearly 17,000 people found that the least socially connected individuals experience memory-loss (dementia) declines at twice the rate of the most socially connected individuals in their study. They used data from a large national health and retirement study in the U.S. that followed individuals over 6 years and calibrated their memory four times over the study.

Their social integration scale was composed of factors like:
– volunteering at least one hour in the past year;
– contacting one of their parents and one of their children once or more a week by phone email or in person;
– getting together with neighbors once a week just to chat; and
– being married.

These results held even when controlling for age, income, health status and other factors. And they found no evidence that the relationship between socializing and memory went the other way: i.e., that those with the best memories became more social.

The mechanism is unclear. One theory is that “the sort of emotional validation and sense of purpose that comes from these social contacts may have neuro-hormonal benefits” for the brain, Ertel said. Another hypothesis holds that being socially active stimulates the brain in a way that either boosts memory function or protects it from decline. Or it may be that people with a strong social network have lots of friends who encourage them to stay healthy and to keep up with their medication, Ertel says.
See press advisory about this study.

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