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Aging Brightly

Study shows loved ones can make the difference

FRIDAY, July 6, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- If you want your mind to stay sharp as you age, you should surround yourself with those you love, new research shows.

Researchers from the University of California-Los Angeles analyzed data from the MacArthur Successful Aging Study -- a 7-year look at the physical and mental health of 1,189 people in their 70s. What they found was that a strong network of loving family and friends actually helped slowed cognitive decline among seniors.

"My feeling is these findings only augment the existing body of literature, which keeps telling us the positive health benefits of our social relationships," says lead author Teresa Seeman. "It just serves to underscore the importance of social relationships to our physical health and well-being."

The study appears in the July issue of Health Psychology.

"I think the study does make some important contributions to this field. It adds to that very small body of data that we have in this field," says Daniel Berch, health scientist administrator for the National Institute on Aging.

Seeman says she had been interested in the health benefits of social relationships for seniors for some time. Because she was one of the investigators on the MacArthur project, she knew it had a wealth of data to analyze.

In her study, researchers looked at the physical and cognitive data on almost 1,200 people in their 70s who were highly active and independent for their age group. The people were drawn from three areas of the country: New Haven, Conn., Boston, and Durham, N.C. They were interviewed in 1988-89, then again in 1991 and 1996, and their cognitive function was measured in detail during each interview. Those seniors who reported the most satisfying social relationships suffered the least cognitive decline, the researchers found.

"We looked at the degree to which you have ties, but also the quality of those ties," Seeman explains. And what they found was: the more emotional support and satisfaction you perceived you had from loved ones, the better your brain functioned as you aged.

It's hard to say whether people suffer cognitive decline and then their social relationships break down, or whether people lose their social relationships and then start to suffer mental decline, Berch notes. A third possibility suggested in previous research is that different factors earlier in life could lead to a breakdown in social relationships and also cognitive decline. The study moves the question along, he says, but it doesn't provide a definitive answer.

One surprising finding was that single seniors, particularly women, did better cognitively over time than their married counterparts.

"Our hypothesis is that married women are not doing as well because they are caring for an older spouse," Seeman says, but she adds that finding needs further research.

Berch agrees.

"It's a very interesting finding. At the very least, further research should corroborate or supplicate that. It will take additional data to help pin that down," he says.

But as long as seniors have positive social interactions, be it with kids, friends or spouses, their mental functions suffered less as they aged, researchers say.

Why?

Seeman thinks two factors could be at play. First, social interactions can stimulate the mind. "It's keeping you cognitively active, so it may be a positive cognitive phenomenon," she says. Second, previous research has shown that people who are exposed to lots of social interactions have better stress responses and lower blood pressure. So having people around you as you age may have a calming effect.

"It may be physiologic protection," says Seeman.

Berch notes that research has shown that being alone as you age can definitely be risky for your mental and physical health.

"I think it's fairly clear that it's important to have close social ties," he says.

What To Do

Read this article from Science Daily News about how cognitive decline is not necessarily a normal part of aging.

And go to the AARP for tips on longevity.

SOURCES: Interviews with Teresa Seeman, Ph.D., epidemiology, Division of Geriatrics, University of California-Los Angeles School of Medicine, Los Angeles; Daniel Berch, Ph.D., health scientist administrator, National Institute on Aging, Bethesda, Md.; July 2001 Health Psychology
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