Need a Brain Boost? Get Out More

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Photo © Catherine Yeulet

People who are socially active reap big benefits when it comes to brain health.

The good news about mild cognitive impairment is that things like eating a healthy diet, being physically active — even speaking more than one language — can delay or even prevent further decline. Equally important to brain health, according to research, is being socially active and engaged. In a recent Statistics Canada report, nearly a quarter of seniors said they would like to take part in more social activities.

Seven or more is best
On average, older adults have seven people in their social network, defined as family members and friends who they feel close to and can talk to about personal matters, and who they have contact with at least once a month. If you find that your social engagement is below this, you may want to consider ways to increase it, advise Baycrest brain health experts Drs. Nicole Anderson, Kelly Murphy and Angela Troyer in their ground-breaking guide to living with memory and cognitive changes.

“There is a nearly endless number of ways to be socially engaged… It is important to find a variety of activities you enjoy doing, and participate in them often,” the authors note. While purely social activities are beneficial, activities that also engage you physically or mentally are even better when it comes to retaining thinking abilities, or cognition, in old age.

Get out and about
• Attend courses or groups at a recreation centre, library, college or university.
• Volunteer.
• Participate in neighbourhood or family activities.
• Exercise, or play a group sport, cards or board games with others.

Why friends and family are so important
Studies show that people who are happier with their interactions with others are at lower risk of dementia– regardless of how frequent these connections are. A large U.S. study has found that those with the fewest close friends, relatives and social connections have mortality rates two to three times higher than those with high levels of social connectedness.

Reduce stress through social support
How does interacting with other people provide us with physical and mental benefits as we age? One theory is that social support helps reduce the effects of stress on our bodies. For example, having a family member nearby during a stressful event, such as visiting a doctor, can result in less of an increase in blood pressure and heart rate.

As a group, older adults with a stronger social network have a more robust immune system, which strengthens the body’s ability to combat some types of cancer, infectious disease and even the common cold.

Social interactions also improve mood and increase feelings of well-being.

Baycrest has long recognized the importance of social connectedness, notes Linda Jackson, executive director of the Residential and Aging at Home program.

“Participants in our seniors adult day programs develop meaningful relationships and extend their social network with other seniors even if they have been diagnosed with a dementia. And their caregivers are less isolated because they receive respite and support from our staff and fellow family members.”

Have fun, conclude the MCI book authors. “As you do this, you just may notice that you feel better, that you are less stressed, and perhaps even that you can remember things a bit better than you used to.”

Cultivate better, stronger friendships
The authors recommend these five ways to strengthen and improve friendships and increase the quality of social exchanges:
1. Communicate openly and honestly about what you need and want.
2. Focus on listening and sharing.
3. Keep personal information confidential to build trust with others.
4. Focus on fun.
5. Stay in touch.


Courtesy of Baycrest, the global leader in innovations, research and breakthroughs for the journey of aging.

© 2013 Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. All Rights Reserved.