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Socializing May Keep Elderly Minds Sharp

WEDNESDAY, May 4 (HealthDay News) -- Being sociable can help keep your brain healthy as you age, researchers report.

The team at Rush University Medical Center found that elderly people with the highest levels of social activity -- doing things such as visiting friends, going to parties or attending church -- showed much lower levels of cognitive decline than those who were the least socially active.

The study included 1,138 adults, average age 80, who are participants in the ongoing Rush Memory and Aging Project. At the start of the study, none of the participants had any signs of cognitive impairment. They were assessed annually and provided information about their social activities.

The study participants were tested for various types of cognitive function, including memory, perceptual speed (the ability to quickly and accurately compare things) and visuospatial ability (the capacity to visually perceive the spatial relationship between objects).

Over an average of five years, those who were the most socially active experienced only one-fourth the rate of cognitive decline as those with the lowest levels of social activity. The effect was independent of other factors that can play a role in cognitive decline, such as age, physical activity and general health.

The study was published online April 8 in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.

It's not clear how social activity may affect cognitive decline, but one possibility is that "social activity challenges older adults to participate in complex interpersonal exchanges, which could promote or maintain efficient neural networks in a case of 'use it or lose it,'" lead researcher Bryan James, a postdoctoral fellow in the epidemiology of aging and dementia at Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center, said in a Rush news release.

Further research is needed to learn whether programs designed to increase older adults' social activity could delay or prevent cognitive decline, he added.

More information

The Society for Neuroscience outlines ways to keep your brain healthy as you age.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Rush University Medical Center, news release, April 25, 2011

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