Accumulating research continues to show that social activity has a positive benefit on health and well-being, and multiple longitudinal studies have shown that more socially active older adults have better cognitive outcomes and are less vulnerable to progressive cognitive decline. For example, one study showed that over a five-year period, individuals with the largest social networks had 39 percent less cognitive decline and half the memory decline compared to people with the lowest social integration. However, social activity can take many forms, from one-on-one conversations to group activities. A recent study in Social Science and Medicine explored which type of social activity might have the greatest cognitive benefit for older adults.
The researchers addressed this question by looking at the responses of 3,413 participants in three waves of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. These individuals were 50 or better at the start of the study, with an average age of 63. The researchers looked at the following factors regarding these individuals’ social relationships: the number of close relationships, relationship quality, frequency of contact, loneliness, the number of group memberships, community activities (for example, hobbies, going on day trips or holidays, etc.), and participation in cultural activities. The researchers then analyzed the relationship between these aspects of social activities and found that they clustered into two main types. The first they characterized as group engagement (participation in social activities, community activities, and number of group memberships), and the second was characterized as individual engagement (relationship quality, frequency of contact, and number of close relationships). Loneliness did not fit into either of these groupings. The group and individual engagement scores were then compared against participants’ performance on cognitive tests that included verbal fluency and various types of memory.
The main finding of the analysis was that when demographic factors, initial cognitive scores, and initial level of social engagement were taken into account, it was group engagement that best predicted cognitive performance four years later. When just looking at the impact of group and social engagement at the start of the study on cognition four years later, only group engagement showed a statistically significant effect. When changes in group and individual engagement in the first two years of the study were taken into account, both group and individual engagement showed statistically significant associations with cognitive performance, with the association being stronger for group engagement. In the analysis, the following other potential contributing factors to better or worse cognitive performance with age were statistically controlled for: age, sex, physical health, financial status and ethnicity. The researchers also looked at how this relationship might change at different ages, and found that group engagement—but not individual engagement—was significantly associated with better cognitive performance for older participants compared to the benefit it provided for younger participants.
The researchers also compared the association with cognition for above average scores on group and individual engagement (one standard deviation above average) compared to average scores of social and individual engagement. Here they found that if a person had above average group engagement, this person cognitively functioned at the average level of a 45-year-old. The impact of group engagement for an above average 80-year-old was even more drastic, with above average group engagement scores associated with cognitive performance at the level of a person age 70.5.
The reasons for this greater impact of group engagement remain unclear and warrant future study. Some of the possibilities suggested for this include group relationships requiring more effort to maintain, or that group activities entail more intense participation. Group engagement’s effects may also reflect these individuals having greater social support.
Taken together, this research suggests that, although individual engagement does provide benefits as well, group engagement may offer unique cognitive benefits to older adults, and that this impact increases as people grow older. As the researchers note, “It would appear that there is particular value in directing investment towards helping them [older adults] develop and maintain social group engagement.” Beyond cognitive performance, other studies have also suggested that the quality of group life (as opposed to just individual relationships) also likely has additional pay-offs in terms of well-being, and mental and physical health. This has important implications for the aging services industry, and suggests that despite the investment required to foster, enable, and facilitate such group interactions is a worthwhile one. As the authors conclude, consider “what one would have to pay for the yet-to-be-invented drug with the potential to reduce the cognitive age of an 80-year-old by nearly a decade.”