Social Engagement and Active Lifestyles Can Slow Down Cognitive Decline

A new study indicated that seniors who engage in meaningful social activities circumvent brain atrophy.

“Cognitive aging” is the term used by scientists to refer to the brain’s natural process of deteriorating after crossing a certain age. But cognitive aging isn’t a disease—it affects, or will affect, everyone in his or her lifetime. There are steps, however, that can be taken to slow down the brain’s decline.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have found that seniors who engage in meaningful social activities circumvent brain atrophy.

The study followed participants in the Baltimore Experience Corps, a program that places retired persons into public schools to work with elementary school students.

“Someone once said to me that being in this program removed the cobwebs from her brain and this study shows that is exactly what is happening,” said study leader Michelle Carlson, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Mental Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in a statement.

Image via AARP Experience Corps YouTube screencapture

The study followed 58 senior men and women who participated in the program, and compared them to 53 seniors who did not. MRI scans revealed that in participants, women’s memory center volumes stayed the same while men’s volumes actually increased. Those who did not participate experienced the expected rate of shrinkage. Typically, annual rates of atrophy in adults over age 65 range from .8 percent to 2 percent. The men in the study, however, showed a .7 percent to 1.6 percent increase in the opposite direction.

While the study’s results were significant, researchers can’t pinpoint exactly what aspect of civil service provides benefits to the brain. In a day’s work at Experience Corp, a senior can expect to not only engage with other seniors and youth, they also have to wake up in time to get themselves to school, commute to the program, and walk the halls of the schools to their classrooms. It could be a combination of both physical and mental activity that keeps the brain from deteriorating at the typical rate.

On April 14, the Institute of Medicine published an action guide for staving off cognitive aging. The three steps that they believe help the most are:

  1. 1. Being physically active
  2. 2. Reducing cardiovascular risks (including hypertension, diabetes, and smoking)
  3. 3. Managing medication and health conditions that could affect cognition.

IOM also suggests being socially and intellectually active, getting adequate sleep, and avoiding delirium associated with hospitalization and certain medications.

Keeping the mind sharp is an important concern for seniors, whose everyday lives can be affected by even subtle slowdowns in cognition. While not every instance is preventable, the risk of illnesses such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, and delirium can be reduced by living an active and connected lifestyle.

Julian Meehan

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