Social activity has been associated with lower rates of disability among older adults, but there has been a dearth of longitudinal or other data to support the hypothesis that social activity pushes back or minimizes the onset of disability. A team of researchers used data from the Rush Memory and Aging Project, a longitudinal cohort study of chronic health conditions in the Chicago area, to see if a high level of social activity would be associated with a lower risk of disability over time.
The study sample included 954 participants with a mean age of 79.6 years old, who had no disabilities in activities of daily living (ADL) or dementia at baseline. The researchers assessed the frequency of six different types of social activity and three different measures of disability. The researchers also measured other covariates, or factors associated with the onset of disability, which were depression, vascular illness, body mass index (BMI), social networks, and physical activity. The researchers found that individuals with higher levels of social activity tender to be younger, more educated, and in better physical health (and more physically active) than those with low levels.
Over the next several years after baseline (a mean of 5.1 years of follow up per participant), a total of 364 participants (38%) developed an ADL disability, 361 developed a mobility disability, and 353 developed a disability in instrumental ADLs. When controlling for the other covariates of disability, individuals who reported a high level of social activity were about twice as likely to avoid developing an ADL disability, and 1.5 times more likely to avoid a disability in mobility or instrumental ADLs. Because the researchers controlled for the social, psychological, and physiological covariates mentioned above, these findings suggest that social activity reduces risk for disability for reasons other than the increased physical activity and reduced risk for depression that is associated with it. This study suggests that interventions to increase social activity among older adults may delay, minimize, or reduce risk of disability.