The value of remaining physically and mentally active as we age seems to get all the attention; however, maintaining a satisfying social life is just as important to successful aging. As social beings, we have a fundamental need to belong and contribute in meaningful ways with other people.
Having a diverse social network with frequent contact as we age is associated with better physical, mental and cognitive health. Some researchers have even suggested that the number of strong social relationships we maintain after retirement has more of an influence on life expectancy than physical exercise, smoking or drinking.
Physically, older adults who report higher social satisfaction have greater immunity to infectious disease, better cardiovascular and pulmonary health, less whole body inflammation and more longevity.
Mentally, older adults who get together regularly with family and friends are 50 percent less likely to report symptoms of depression, as compared to those who have little face-to-face contact. Conversely, older adults who met with family and friends at least three times a week had the lowest level of depression.
Cognitively, there are big benefits to staying social. In one study, the rate of cognitive decline was 70 percent slower in older adults with frequent social contact than those with low social activity. In another study, women with larger social networks were 26 percent less likely to develop dementia than those with smaller social networks.
Researchers have reported that the “sweet spot” of socializing is different for everyone, but having three or more personal relationships, in which older adults felt they could rely on for help if needed and confide in about private matters, seems to be the minimum for receiving the brain benefits of socialization.
There are three main ways being social helps our brain:
- Cognitive engagement: It stimulates brain cells to grow new connections called dendrites, which enhances brain communication, enhances blood flow and limits the amount of time that the aging brain is unfocused (considered to be a risk factor for cognitive impairment).
- Makes a deposit in our brain bank, our cognitive reserve: People are complicated. We need to be “on our toes” mentally to listen well and respond thoughtfully in conversations. Mental stimulation that is novel and unexpected is the best type of brain exercise.
- Reduces stress hormones: According to neuroscientists, elevated stress hormones seem to speed the aging of the brain. Laughing and enjoying social time with people is a great stress reliever.