What is in the “secret sauce” that leads to healthy living? Recent findings make it clear that one of the main ingredients is robust social engagement.
Researchers did not always consider social engagement an important factor in the aging process. Early adult development theorists even promoted a “disengagement model,” suggesting that it was natural for older adults to move away from their social network over time.
More recently researchers have acknowledged the impact of social relationships to health outcomes, and the topic seems to be gaining increased attention. A recent special issue of the American Psychologist explores the many ways in which social engagement impacts well-being across the lifespan, including older age. As Dr. Christine Schetter states in her introductory editorial to the issue, “… the presence and quality of close relationships are among the more reliable and robust predictors of disease and length of life” (p. 511).
Recent research by the AARP and policy recommendations from the Global Council on Brain Health underline the highly significant role social engagement plays in cognitive wellness. The AARP 2016 Social Engagement and Brain Health Survey found that adults 40+ with greater social networks report better cognitive well-being than those with fewer in their social groups. Most interestingly, those with fewer in their social network were significantly more likely to complain of memory challenges over the past 5 years. The Global Council on Brain Health’s consensus statement on the issue resolves that “the weight of the evidence suggests that social engagement helps maintain thinking skills and slows cognitive decline in later life” (p. 3).
I couldn’t agree more. There is no doubt that when we engage with others we call upon the very intellectual skills most challenged by the aging process, including sustained attention, processing speed, flexible thinking, short-term memory, and reasoning among them. In addition, we are more likely to pursue the kind of intellectually engaging activities tied to reducing dementia risk when we are with a friend or family member. Finally, being with others is tied to better emotional health, making it less likely that we will feel supported and nurtured. And these benefits can’t be gained from individual-based training, such as computer-based programs.
The Social-Based Brain Training model integrated into all our TBH TOOLKIT courses and programs deliberately engages class participants in multiple collective learning “workouts” that not only teach great cognitive strategies but are designed to provide the full power of social engagement for better brain health. We know that this approach gives class members the chance to benefit in many additional ways in the classroom as well as the opportunity to continue relationships outside those four walls. Results of a recent pilot study conducted at Galloway Ridge at Fearrington, a TBH Community Partner, showed that participants reported significantly fewer depressive symptoms after taking TBH TOOLKIT courses.
Let’s start to prioritize social engagement in our work and in our own lives as well. Make time for that cup of coffee or walk with a friend, look at developing programs with active social opportunities in addition to the learning that they offer, and connect with us! Here at Total Brain Health, we would love to continue the conversation.