Posted by: Footler PJ9 JUN 2011
The American writer Mary Hunter Austin was referring to the way that our surroundings affect our lives when she wrote: “Man is not himself only, he is all that he sees; / All that flows to him from a thousand sources, / He is the land, the lift of its mountain lines, / The reach of its valleys.” A similar point was made by the ecologist Sir Frank Fraser Darling, who said we are “born with our complement of genes and grow with the accidents of our environment”.
However, the physical landscape, whether mountain, valley or workplace, is just one element of our story. Our families, friends, work colleagues and even casual acquaintances are also among those “thousand sources”. Each contributes something to make us who we are and, according to a recent study by the Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago, their contributions may become even more important as we age.
The Rush Memory and Ageing Project took 1,138 adults with an average age of 80 and compared their levels of social activity with changes in cognitive function. The yearly assessments included tests for episodic, semantic and working memory, perceptual speed and visual-spatial ability.
The study found that people who visited friends, went to parties and restaurants, attended sporting events or religious services or did voluntary work showed lower rates of cognitive decline than those who did not socialise. Indeed, it was shown that those individuals who were most socially active had only one quarter of the cognitive decline experienced by the least socially active participants.
The researchers commented that while failing memory and thinking capabilities would make socialising difficult this study suggests that social inactivity itself leads to cognitive impairments. Why this should happen is not yet clear but lead researcher Bryan James of the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Centre commented: “Social activity challenges older adults to participate in complex interpersonal exchanges, which could promote or maintain efficient neural networks”. A simple case of use it or lose it.