Busy Social Life May Stave Off Disability in Elderly

MONDAY Feb. 21, 2011 -- Seniors who are more socially active are less likely to become disabled, researchers say.

The study from Rush University in Chicago looked at 954 elderly people, average age 82, who had no type of disability at the start of the study period. The participants underwent yearly physical and mental evaluations and provided information about their social activities, such as going out to eat, playing bingo, doing volunteer work, taking day or overnight trips, and participating in community groups.

Compared to people with low levels of social activity, people who had high levels of social activity were about twice as likely to remain free of disabilities that hindered activities of daily living (such as feeding, bathing, dressing, using the toilet) and about 1.5 times more likely to remain free of disabilities that affected mobility or instrumental activities of daily living (for example, using the telephone, preparing meals and managing medications), the investigators found.

"Social activity has long been recognized as an essential component of healthy aging, but now we have strong evidence that it is also related to better everyday functioning and less disability in old age," lead researcher Bryan James, postdoctoral fellow in epidemiology of aging and dementia at Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center, said in a university news release.

"The findings are exciting because social activity is potentially a risk factor that can be modified to help older adults avoid the burdens of disability," he added.

It's not clear how social activity helps prevent disability, but it may reinforce the neural networks and musculoskeletal function required to maintain physical function, James said.

The study was released online in advance of publication in the April print issue of the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences.

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Aging has more about healthy aging.

Posted: February 2011


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