The Social Lives of Geriatrics

Increased social activity reduces risk of disability among seniors

(RxWiki News) While exercise and physical activity help seniors avoid the onset of disabilities, new research shows that social activity also decreases the risk of developing disabilities in old age.

In an ongoing study of 954 older adults (mean age of 82 years), researchers at Rush University Medical Center found that higher levels of social activity - such as going out to eat, taking trips, or simply playing bingo - are linked to a reduced risk of developing disabilities.

For the study, researchers administered yearly medical evaluations on the elderly participants, all of whom had no disabilities at the beginning of the study. In addition, the researchers measured social activity with a survey that asked if, and how often, participants went to restaurants, sporting events, or off-track betting; played bingo; went on day or overnight trips; did volunteer work; made visits to family or friends; participated in certain groups; or attended religious services.

In order to identify disabilities, the researchers asked participants if they could perform six activities of daily living without the aid of others. These actives included feeding, bathing, dressing, using the toilet, transferring, and walking across a small room. Researchers also asked participants if they were able to walk up and down a stairwell, walk a half mile, and perform heavy housework. Lastly, participants were ask if they could perform "instrumental" activities of daily living (e.g. using the telephone, preparing meals, and managing medications).

The researchers found that individuals who reported engaging in high levels of social activity were about twice as likely to avoid disabilities involved in daily living activities, compared to those who reported lower levels of social activity. Similarly, people who engaged in high levels of social activity were about 1.5 times more likely to avoid disability involving instrumental activities or mobility, compared to people with lower levels of social activity.

According to lead researcher Bryan James, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow in the epidemiology of aging and dementia in the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center, these findings add to a body of evidence about the benefits of social activity for healthy aging. The study's results are exciting, adds James, because elderly individuals have the ability to adjust their level of social activity in order to avoid developing disabilities.

The study appears online and will be published in the April issue of the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences.

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Review Date: 
February 18, 2011