Playing a board game or going to the cinema could help to ward off dementia by protecting the grey matter of the brain, a study suggests.
Grey matter is full of nerves and is essential for sending messages around the brain but it shrinks with age, causing brain cells to die and the organ to become less efficient.
University of Pittsburgh researchers asked 300 people with an average age of 83 about their social engagement, including whether they lived with other people.
High scores were awarded to people who did things like go to church, volunteer or get together with family, friends or neighbours at least once a week.
And people who spent more time alone and inactive scored lower on the tests.
People who socialised at a greater level had healthier grey matter in regions of the brain that are linked with the development of dementia.
These regions are needed for recognising faces, forming memories and making emotional decisions.
If socialising keeps grey matter intact, it could prevent or delay dementia, a disease for which there is no cure, the researchers said.
Regular socialising could help to ward off dementia by protecting grey matter of the brain, a study suggests (stock photo)
Stimulus of any kind such as smell or vision goes to the brain for further processing. ‘Social stimuli’ is processed by specific brain regions known as the ‘social brain’, the parts of which are pictured
The findings, reported today in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, suggests social activities should be ‘prescribed’ to ward off dementia, just like prescribing exercise to prevent diabetes or heart disease.
However, this may be difficult in the Covid-19 era, when people are told to limit their social contacts to avoid catching the coronavirus.
Dr Cynthia Felix, a geriatrician and epidemiologist, led the study.
She said: ‘Our data were collected before the Covid-19 pandemic, but I believe our findings are particularly important right now, since a one-size-fits-all social isolation of all older adults may place them at risk for conditions such as dementia.
‘Older adults should know it is important for their brain health that they still seek out social engagement in safe and balanced ways during the pandemic.’
The study involved 293 elderly people from an ongoing study which looks for possible early warning signs of declining health in people getting older.
The participants received a sensitive brain scan called a Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) MRI.
This scanning technique looks at nerve structures in the brain and helps diagnose conditions like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis.
In this study, the DTI measured the strength of brain cells used for social engagement – the first time this has been done.
Dr Felix and colleagues asked each participant to describe their social activities, which were then scored on a scale devised by the team.
High scores were awarded to people who did things like play board games, go to the cinema, travel long distances, attend classes, lectures or adult education events and participate in church or other community activities.
They were also scored high if they got together with children, friends, relatives or neighbours at least once a week, volunteered or worked, or were married or living with other people.
The study, supported by National Institutes of Health, found greater social engagement scores were related to better structural integrity of grey matter in these older adults.
Social engagement with at least one other person, even in a small amount, activates specific brain regions needed to recognize familiar faces and emotions, make decisions and feel rewarded, the researchers said.
Stimulus of any kind such as smell or vision goes to the brain for further processing, so that a human being can identify a particular smell or picture.
‘Social stimuli’ is processed by specific brain regions known as the ‘social brain’, which create a response. These include decision making and response to a familiar face.
The researchers said: ‘The brain grey matter regions we found have known roles in dementia.
‘Since greater social engagement is associated with greater microstructural integrity of these regions, their brain cellular health is maintained, and therefore dementia can be prevented or delayed.’
But more research is needed to understand whether those who socialise have healthier brains, or if those who have healthier brain socialise more.
Grey matter consists of nerve cells that coordinate information from different senses. White matter, on the other hand, is mostly made of nerves called axons that transmit signals.
Grey matter is susceptible to breaking down during ageing, but can be preserved by some activities.
Previous research carried out by Imperial College London suggests grey matter begins to shrink during middle age and is related to cell death. White matter also appears to start declining at around 40 years old.
Research has found a correlation between people who have dementia and reduced grey matter volume in the brain.
Dr Felix said studies in the future could look at whether certain activities are better for prevention of dementia.
In the past, speaking more than one language, exercising, and practising mindfulness have been linked to improved brain health related to a delay in dementia.