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February 14, 2017

Get Involved. Keep Your Brain Engaged.

By Alzheimer's Prevention Bulletin

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Your Thursday night bowling league, monthly book club meeting or the days you volunteer at your grandkid’s school may be benefitting you in ways you haven’t considered. Brain health experts at the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) recently sponsored a report that concludes older people who are more socially active and have larger social networks are better at reasoning, thinking and planning. 

The GCBH report – The Brain and Social Connectedness: GCBH Recommendations on Social Engagement and Brain Health – emphasizes the importance of purposeful social engagement as opposed to passive social engagement. 

What’s the difference between the two? Let’s start with passive social engagement. Attending a lecture on healthy living strategies is an example of passive engagement. While it’s a positive learning experience and an excellent way to engage your mind, it doesn’t benefit the brain in same way as purposeful engagement with others. 

 “In the GCBH report, purposeful social engagements are those that are pleasing and meaningful to you as well as to those with whom you engage,” said Michelle Carlson, PhD, who helped develop the GCBH report on social engagement. “They’re good for everyone involved.”

Examples of purposeful social engagements, include:

  • Mentoring teens at a youth center
  • Answering a community hotline 
  • Volunteering at a church, synagogue or mosque
  • Checking on an older neighbor who may be lonely
  • Participating in a walking group
  • Taking care of a pet
  • Getting involved in a literacy program at an elementary school or library

Dr. Carlson is especially familiar with the benefits of the last example on the list. An Associate Professor in the Department of Mental Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, she co-directed a study called the Baltimore Experience Corps® Trial. That study recruited and trained retirees to work with teachers in classrooms and the school library. These men and women helped students in Baltimore City Public Schools improve their reading skills. 

The Experience Corps now operates with the support of AARP in Baltimore and other cities across the country to promote purposeful social engagement. The study in Baltimore was unusual because it featured a control group. This allowed Dr. Carlson and her team to compare changes in brain function and structure between the two groups: people participating in Experience Corps and people on a waiting list to join the volunteer program.

“Experience Corps and another study called the Synapse Project both showed that people involved in a purposeful activity showed improved brain function as compared to a control group,” Dr. Carlson said.

What’s next for social engagement research? Dr. Carlson notes there’s lots to learn about the benefits of “digital social engagement.” Social media, instant messaging and more reduce physical barriers and allow older adults to maintain relationships with family and friends. They help older adults expand their social world, according to the report.

Researchers also are interested in learning more about the amount and types of social engagement needed to boost brain function. Another question on researchers’ agendas: Is having a close, high-quality social network as useful to brain health as a large social network?

“There are many types of social engagement: peer to peer, neighbor to neighbor, person to pet, and adult to child,” Dr. Carlson said. “Social engagement takes energy and the key to all of these social connections is to have meaningful interactions.”

Engaging with people, having fun and maintaining your brain … that’s a win for everyone!