happy seniors maintaining active social lives to help avoid dementia

How Active Social Lives Can Help Seniors Avoid Dementia

With a Little Help from Their Friends

As seniors age, it’s common for friendships and close social relationships to begin dropping off. People get sick, people move, and, eventually, friendships become harder and harder to maintain. New research, however, is proving that maintaining those friendships is much more important than we previously thought. In addition to preventing isolation and providing mood boosts for seniors, maintaining friendships may also fight dementia. Here’s what you need to know about the social lives of seniors:

The Connection Between Dementia and Friendship

Dementia is a condition that affects thousands of people worldwide, and those numbers are growing. In fact, the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that by the year 2050, the number of people (ages 65 and older) suffering from Alzheimer’s will triple. This would take the national tally from 5.1 million (according to recent estimates) to 13.8 million over the next several decades. Dementia is  heartbreaking condition that robs seniors of their memory and their ability to function independently. There is currently no cure for dementia but an increasing number of studies have been proving that there are many things people can do to ward off dementia and one of those things is to remain social. According to a study conducted by the Stockholm Gerontology Research Center, seniors who live alone and have few or no social relationships are 60% more likely to develop dementia than those who lead active social lives. Additionally, a study of 2,249 senior women published in the American Journal of Public Health found that seniors who maintained a wide circle of friendships and social interactions displayed a significant decrease in their rates of dementia while also delaying or completely preventing symptoms of cognitive impairment. To be specific, these women were 26% less likely to develop dementia than their less social peers and the women within the study who had daily contact with family and friends were a whopping 50% less likely to develop dementia. Existing dementia may also be worsened by a lack of social relationships, as people with undiagnosed cognitive decline often withdraw from friendships and other social relationships, which serves to worsen symptoms and enhance the rate of memory loss. It is possible, however, to reverse some of the symptoms of early-stage dementia by re-introducing social relationships. It is not uncommon to see a person suffering from early-stage dementia who has been living alone without many social relationships for many years (a widower whose children live far away, for example) immediately regain some cognitive function upon being moved to a senior residence, where they’re surrounded by dozens of peers throughout the day. In light of this, encouraging seniors to resume social relationships by whatever means necessary may be one of the best ways to protect them from cognitive decline. This is likely due, in large part, to the fact that social relationships and the engagement required by them stimulate the cognitive functions of the human brain, which is an important factor in preventing the onset of dementia. Every time a senior has a social interaction with a friend or family member, the brain is forced to think about the interaction and then formulate a response, this stimulates the brain and keeps the parts responsible for memory and cognition sharp. While scientists currently know that increased social interaction is good for the brain, they don’t exactly know why. It may be due to the social interaction itself or simply due to the fact that social interaction, by definition, increases brain stimulation and keeps neural pathways functional. In light of these theories, there’s been a huge national push to create groups that help seniors stay active and social and there are already dozens of organizations around the country that are dedicated to this cause. These groups are focused on taking seniors suffering from the early stages of dementia and creating a dementia-friendly community in which seniors can socialize and rebuild friendships or simply creating an environment that helps seniors avoid dementia altogether. One fantastic example is a group called Momentia, which is based in Seattle. The group contains 16 seniors, half of which have dementia. During their outings, the group plays music, visits the zoo, explores Seattle’s many museums and attractions, and focuses on living wholly and completely in the present – which is one of the best and simplest ways adults with early-stage dementia can give the condition a run for its money. While dementia is still a condition that necessitates further study, emerging research is showing time and time again that socialization, in concert with healthy diet and exercise, may be an incredibly effective way to ward off the symptoms of memory loss, dementia, and depression.

Tips to Maintain Social Relationships

Despite the fact that maintaining social relationships is imperative for good mental health and memory function, it’s a difficult thing for many seniors to do. These tips will help seniors maintain healthy social relationships throughout the years.
  • Volunteer. Volunteering is one of the best ways to maintain a healthy social life. Because volunteering encourages seniors to meet new people and form new connections, it’s a fantastic way to keep the brain healthy and active for years to come.

  • Get involved in a senior facility. Even if a senior is not yet living in a senior care facility, getting involved with one can be a fantastic way to meet new friends and make a difference. Opportunities for involvement include making and delivering meals, teaching classes, spearheading events, and accompanying the residents on field trips.

  • Join a new group. Many seniors find immense comfort and enjoyment in joining a group that focuses on a favorite activity. Examples may include a book club, a birding group, a craft club, or a gardening group. These things are doubly efficient since they provide a senior with social relationships while also encouraging the pursuit of a passion.

  • Learn something new. Learning something new is one of the best ways to protect the brain from decline and encourage the development of new neural pathways. Many seniors love learning languages or taking cooking or hobby classes in their spare time.

  • Get active. Staying fit is incredibly important for people who want to stave off memory loss and dementia. This is easy to do when seniors join a gym class or fitness center. In addition to helping the body stay slim and active, these classes also encourage the development of new skills and help foster new friendships.

  • Puzzle it out. According to recent research, people who take part in intellectually stimulating activities like listening to the radio, reading, or playing puzzle games like Sudoku have a 47% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s than their peers. Additionally, things like writing letters by hand and doing crossword puzzles have been shown to reduce the risk of cognitive decline in seniors.

While these tips may be simple, they can go a long way toward helping seniors delay or prevent the onset of memory loss. At the end of the day, dementia isn’t something that can be fixed or prevented in one single step. Rather, prevention comes down to a complex web of social, mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. While there is no guaranteed form of prevention and no known treatment for people already affected by dementia, multiple studies have shown that people who eat right, stay active, and focus on building and maintaining their social relationships have a drastically lower occurrence of dementia and memory loss. Who knew that staying healthy could be as simple as giving your best friend a call?