“It’s important to act engaged in your environment, be it through learning, be it through social interaction, be it through exercise,” says Denise Park, a psychologist and director of the Productive Aging Laboratory at the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas, Dallas. “I think what we’ll find out is that what’s bad is sitting home alone in a quiet room watching television.”
In one study on the impact of stimulating activities and social engagement on the brain, Park found that mental exercises, such as games, puzzles or problems that challenge the brain, were important to maintaining cognitive function. Park and her lab team are beginning a four-year study of 400 people over age 60 who will learn new skills, such as quilting or photography, while researchers examine the impact of skill acquisition on brain function.
“It’s important to act engaged in your environment, be it through learning, be it through social interaction, be it through exercise.” — Denise Park
Park hypothesizes that social interaction, like mental exercises and learning, may limit the amount of time that the aging brain can remain unfocused, in a daydream-like state. Her theory is that older people have more difficulty switching between daydreaming and focused attention to important details. So the more time the aging brain spends mentally stimulated and socially engaged, the less switching is necessary, and the easier it is to perform the daily tasks necessary for independent living.
By age 80, however, even the most socially engaged among us are likely to have some changes in the structures inside our brains, says David Bennett, M.D., a neurologist and director of the Rush University Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago. “But some people with those changes will have memory loss,” he says, “and some won’t.”
Bennett and his colleagues did a study of people whose brains had large numbers of plaques and tangles — changes in nerve cells that are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s. Some patients with those markers developed traditional symptoms of the disease, such as memory loss and dementia, while others did not. Why the difference? It turns out that in those people with larger social networks, the changes of Alzheimer’s are much less likely to result in memory loss than in those with smaller social networks.
“Through a variety of activities you do during your life, your brain becomes more efficient. If you have a disease that’s destroying your [thought-processing] networks, the guy with the more efficient network is going to be better off,” says Bennett.
In another study at Rush, researchers followed about 800 people, all about age 80, for four years. The participants had no signs of dementia at the beginning of the study, but some described themselves as lonely and tested positive on a “loneliness scale.” During the study, 76 people developed Alzheimer’s-like dementia. People with the highest scores on the loneliness scale had more than twice the risk of developing dementia as those with more social connections who had scored lower.
However, when autopsies were performed on the 90 people who died during the study, no link was found between loneliness and the amount of plaques and tangles in their brains. Bennett says this suggests that loneliness is somehow connected to memory loss but not necessarily to Alzheimer’s. Some researchers think that elevated stress hormones may have caused the dementia and hastened aging of the brain tissues and structures.
Whatever the process is that allows social interaction to protect the aging brain — and scientists are only beginning to understand it — the McClearys believe it worked wonders for Stella, who lived in the Reno facility for two years. “I am convinced that had she continued to live alone in her previous apartment, she would not have improved the way she did,” says her daughter, Christine McCleary. “I’m just sorry my dad never lived there too, because I think he would have benefited from it and loved it.”
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Michelle Diament is a freelance writer based in Memphis.