Older people chatting
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Being part of a social network might help us keep our brains in top gear.
According to a large, longitudinal study, being part of a community group could help prevent the cognitive decline associated with age. The current findings add further evidence that social engagement is good for the mind.

Earlier research has hinted that having a strong social network, integrating socially, and engaging with others is associated with better cognitive outcomes.

Similarly, community opportunities - such as recreational, social, and leisure activities and voluntary and group work - are all linked with higher levels of well-being and lower mental stress.

These types of so-called social capital opportunities also reduce overall stress, isolation, and loneliness.

Being involved in civic groups - such as neighborhood watch, environmental groups, voluntary service groups, and other community-based groups - seems to be a healthful option.

Measuring engagement over decades

Although previous work in this area has generated positive outcomes in relation to social engagement, very few studies have been longitudinal; in other words, they have not followed people throughout their lives.

A team of scientists from the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom set out to plug this gap. They designed a study to help understand the impact of social engagement throughout adult life on cognitive function at the age of 50.

The study utilized data from the British National Child Development Study (NCDS), a sample of the general population of England, Scotland, and Wales. Data was first taken when the participants were born in 1958 and then at various points throughout their lives.

By the age of 33, only 17 percent of participants were part of a civic organization and 14 percent were involved in one group; by the age of 50, 36 percent were in these types of groups and 25 percent were involved in one.

In total, 8,129 of the study group took cognitive tests at 11 (covering math, writing, reading, and general ability) and also at 50 (covering speed and concentration tests, memory, and visual attention).

Overall, almost one third of the respondent's cognitive abilities declined between the ages of 11-50, while mental abilities were unchanged in 44 percent of the group. Roughly one quarter had improved cognitive prowess at 50.

The cognitive benefits of civic groups

Once the data was analyzed, the researchers found that those who were involved in civic groups at the ages of 33-50 scored higher in the cognitive tests. Additionally, for each extra civic group that the individuals participated in, their cognitive scores increased. So, in this case, it seems that the more groups, the better.
"While the associations between adult social engagement and cognitive function at age 50 we found were moderate, they persisted after we adjusted for covariates, such as health, socio-economic status, and gender."

Prof. Ann Bowling
Above and beyond participation in civic activities, other factors were also found to improve cognitive performance at 50; these included frequent physical activity, higher education achievement, and gender (females fared better).

Having low socioeconomic status as a child, however, was associated with worse cognitive function at the age of 50, as was worse self-reported mental well-being during adulthood.

As Prof. Bowling says: "The implication is that if people continue to engage socially throughout life, maintaining related behaviors that require cognitive skills such as memory, attention, and control, there may be some protection from cognitive decline."

Although the study is observational and cannot, therefore, prove cause and effect, because the researchers used a large group of participants and followed them throughout their lives, they could control for a range of variables and provide robust conclusions.

The results, published this week in BMC Psychology, could be used as evidence to improve public access to the types of civic groups seen in the study. Prof. Bowling says: "Public health policy interventions aimed at promoting cognitive health could include encouraging civic engagement and providing people with opportunities for this."