There is great interest today in what can be done to preserve good cognitive function—the ability to think clearly, learn and remember. After all, hoping to maintain mental vitality into late adulthood is a major goal of most older Americans.
“Findings from a few studies suggest that individuals who have been victims of boredom and loneliness with limited social support such as those widowed, retired or living alone with low social activities are more prone to have reduced cognitive functions as they age,” said Shawnee Mission Health staff psychiatrist Dr. Piyushkumar Jani.
For those who practice CREATION Health, the principles of interpersonal relationships and trust play an important role in connectedness. Strong relationships serve as a springboard to social engagement and participation in leisure activities, which may be critical in maintaining cognitive function in late adulthood.
Whether it’s a quick “Hi, how are you?”, a deep conversation, a long walk together or some other shared experience, the urge to interact with other people is one of our most fundamental human needs. And while we don’t yet fully understand exactly how a higher level of social engagement enhances our well-being, there’s a wealth of evidence showing positive relationships and shared activities can significantly contribute to our quality of life, especially as we get older.
Emma Seppala, author of the 2016 book The Happiness Track, wrote, “People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them.”
Overall, research suggests having close ties to friends and family and participating in meaningful social activities may help people maintain their thinking skills better in later life and slow down cognitive decline.
“On the other hand, low social connection can lead to serious health problems such as depression, anxiety, violence, obesity, increased smoking and drug use,” said Jani.
There are several reasons social engagement might affect the brain and its functions. For one thing, being connected socially provides access to information and advice. This social network can also offer vital emotional support during challenging situations.
There is also the “use it or lose it” theory, which means if you aren’t using the cognitive skills necessary for social engagement, eventually these skills could deteriorate.
Fortunately, there are now more ways than ever to stay connected to other people, including everything from church involvement to digital social engagement. As a matter of fact, older adults are the fastest growing segment among internet users.
“The younger generation can help older adults learn how to use social media and new technology,” said Jani. Using platforms like email, Facebook, Skype, blogs and many others, seniors can both maintain their relationships with family and friends and expand their existing social world.
A strong tie to a church community is also good for your health. Some studies show Adventists live about 10 years longer than the average American in part because they belong to a social group that values a healthy lifestyle and the opportunity to decompress on a regular basis.
The bottom line is social engagement can become even more crucial for people as they age. Sure, it’s important to eat right and get regular exercise, but staying connected can be just as vital.
Make Connections, Stay Connected
Here are several examples of what people can do to stay connected:
- Join a church, club, class or social group.
- Make a point of regular contact with friends, family members and neighbors.
- Help others through organizations and volunteering opportunities.
- Cultivate connections with people of different ages.
- Stay in touch with grandchildren, extended relatives or old friends.
- Think about skills you have that you could share.
- Consider having a pet; caring for a cat, dog or bird can help give structure to the day and be a catalyst to social interaction.
Learn more about Shawnee Mission Health or CREATION Health at ShawneeMission.org or CreationHealth.com.