Memory and Social Interaction

If you can’t remember where you put your keys….find them and then go meet friends for dinner!

Strong social ties, through friends and community groups, can preserve our brain health as we age while social isolation is an important risk factor for cognitive decline in those age 50 and over.

Socializing with people is a form of exercise that requires attention, effort and alertness, all of which are important aspects of memory. Of course, socializing is also an important feature of preventing or reducing depression.

Information is stored in different parts of memory. Information stored in short-term memory may include the name of a person you met today while information stored in your remote or long-term memory includes things stored years ago, such as memories of childhood.

When you’re in your 20s, you begin to lose brain cells a few at a time. Your body also starts to make less of the chemicals your brain cells need to work. The older you are, the more these changes can affect your memory.A memory problem is serious when it affects your daily living. If you sometimes forget names, you’re probably okay. But you may have a more serious problem if you have trouble remembering how to do things you’ve done many times before, getting to a place you’ve been to often, or doing things that requires steps. Certain medications, stress-related activities, injuries and other factors may also cause memory loss.

Aging may affect memory by  not only changing the way the brain stores information and by making it harder to recall stored information.

Another difference between normal memory problems and dementia (a more serious type of memory loss) is that normal memory loss doesn’t get much worse over time. Dementia may get much worse over several months to several years.

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health used data gathered from six years of data from the Health and Retirement Study, a large, nationally representative population of American adults ages 50 and older. Participants took memory tests at two-year intervals during the study period. Testers read a list of 10 common nouns to survey respondents, who were then asked to recall as many words as possible immediately and again after a five-minute delay. The researchers also measured social integration and engagement in activities with others.

The results showed that individuals who in their 50s and 60s who engage in a lot of social activity also had the slowest rate of memory decline. In fact, compared to those who were the least socially active, study subjects who had the highest social integration scores had less than half the rate of memory loss.

“The working hypothesis is that social engagement is what makes you mentally engaged,” said Lisa F. Berkman, the study’s senior author and director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. “You can’t sit and withdraw if you’re constantly talking and engaging with others. It’s not just completing a crossword puzzle, it’s living your life.”

One of the most difficult challenges for mature adults is maintaining or finding relationships with people from their generation who share their interests, experiences and hobbies.  Whether you are retired or not, there are many things you can do to prevent  loneliness and make connections with others.  It can be as easy as joining a group with interests that match your own.  This social interaction is essential to healthy brain health.

God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.” –  James Matthew Barrie

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“You’ve Got To Have Friends” The Importance of Socializing For Those Age 55+

There was a song that was made popular by Bette Midler in 1973 called “You’ve Got To Have Friends”.  Friendships and socializing with others is important at any age, but especially in the 55+ years.   

I would like to tell you about a lady that I know named Jane.  At 70 years old, she has a vibrant social circle.  Though she has been widowed for many years, has at times struggled financially and has lost a son, she is rarely lonely.  Her friends and her social interaction has kept a sparkle in her eye, warmth in her laughter and bounce in her step.  Jane is a perfect example that one of the secrets of successful aging lies in our friendships with others.   

Not everyone has the social structure that Jane has; whether it is because of relocation, divorce, widowhood, retirement, or just a shift in friendships, both men and women may suffer from loneliness as they grow older. How can social interaction affect overall well-being?  

Having lots of friends and social connections is very good for your mental and physical health. A massive study of 4,725 age 55+ randomly selected residents of Alameda County in California found that those with the fewest close friends and social connections had mortality rates that were two to three times higher than those with high levels of social connectedness. Also, life expectancy tables show a difference of nine years between people with very poor social connections and those with very good ones. Friendships and continued socializing as we age creates a feeling of belonging, a buffer against stress and a sense of purpose in feeling needed by our friends. When a friend reflects to us that we are loved and valued, our thoughts about ourselves rise in a corresponding matter.  

Close friendships, through protection against isolation, provides benefits such as maintaining the elasticity of blood vessels, maintaining healthier blood pressures and lowering cardiac inflammatory protein levels. Friendships can also encourage health–promoting behaviors like proper sleep and exercise, and friends will let you know when they don’t approve of your smoking or eating too much.  Friends also help out when you need a ride to the doctor or bring over soup when you have a cold.  

Scientists have long observed that a lack of social interaction and friends, by contrast, is also major risk factor for disease and early death, comparable to high blood pressure, obesity, and other serious health risks. “Being socially isolated is comparable to the negative effects of smoking for your health,” says James Coan, PhD, a psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Virginia. “Lonely people tend to react more intensely to life’s problems and feel more threatened by a difficult situation. This in turn may cause high blood pressure, increase in heart rate, sleep disturbance and depression. “ 

 Scientists are also finding out that we are hardwired to seek out others. Too much alone time and our bodies send out distress signals. When a person feels lonely, their brain responds by increasing the levels of the hormone cortisol. Over a long period of time, this hormone can harm us by destroying neurons that affect memory and interfere with sleep.  When people experience social exclusion, it activates the same region of the brain when we’re physically hurt.  Humans require others to survive and feel distress when they are isolated. 

 My friend Jane lives so well as she has grown older because she cultivated her old friends and has stimulated her mind by getting to know new ones.  She has never forgotten, beyond anything else, that we all truly need each other.