Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other forms of dementia are estimated to grow exponentially over the next five decades. In the United States the rate is expected to go up approximately 20% each year. On a global scale, the problem is also escalating. Research from Alzheimer’s International reports that approximately 58 percent of all people with dementia live in developing countries and that by 2050, nearly half of the people with the disease will live in Asia. These numbers are likely to grow with aging populations and as more cases are identified. There is no treatment for Alzheimer’s or most other forms of dementia, so research into possible causes and treatments is vital. Many research studies have focused on lifestyle and diet factors and there has been some good information to come out of those efforts.
A new report from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) via the Global Council on Brain Health shows that having an active social life may protect your brain as you age. Whether it’s with family and friends, volunteering in the community or just being engaged in activities with others like social clubs or game leagues, it definitely seems to play a part in keeping the brain healthy and reducing memory loss and cognitive decline.
Sarah Lock, the council’s executive director and AARP senior vice president said, “Spending time with friends and family is surprisingly important to brain health as we age. And it’s not just the numbers of social connections you have. The type, quality and purpose of your relationships can affect your brain functions, as well.”
The report from the GCBH included a review of data from various neurological studies as well as the results of an AARP survey on socialization and brain health of adults age 40. and over found that although most people are at least somewhat socially engaged, there were still significant percentages of older people who reported that they lacked companionship (37%), had difficulty socially engaging (35%) and felt isolated (29%). 25% of those answering the survey said they were almost completely disconnected socially. When reporting on their level of memory and cognition there was a correlation between those who struggled socially and those who reported the most trouble with memory. Those who reported active social lives also reported having little to no trouble with memory skills and recall, whereas those who reported social difficulties or isolation also had the highest rates of reported forgetfulness and cognitive decline.
Michelle C. Carlson, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore participated in the review and wrote in the report, “This is a public health issue. We need to think about ways to identify the problem in individuals and work together to reengage people and do it in a way that has meaning.” Marilyn Albert, professor of neurology and director of cognitive neuroscience at Johns Hopkins added, “It's not uncommon for our social networks to shrink in size as we get older. This report provides many helpful suggestions about the things we can do to improve the quality of our relationships with family and friends, which may be beneficial in maintaining our mental abilities.”
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Maintaining strong social ties is not easy as people age. There are sometimes health or mobility issues, peer groups shrink when friends die, so it takes extra effort to stay connected. Suggestions in the report included volunteering for activities that included younger people such as in schools or childcare centers, learning how to use social media to stay in touch with family who may not live close and to keep up on area events. Being aware of community resources such as ride services and senior centers was also important. While it isn’t easy, even just making a few connections can improve mood and memory. The video below has more information, take a look.