One of the 5 pillars of brain health is being socially active. I’ve been remiss in barely mentioning it at all in the previous 29 posts, but there’s a good reason: I’m terrible at it and I haven’t yet figured out how to do it better.
Conceptually, it makes sense that spending time with and engaging with others would be protective against cognitive decline. It forces you to use your entire brain to constantly adapt and adjust to a changing situation. Positive interactions release untold numbers of good chemicals throughout your body. It’s easy to imagine how the opposite of social engagement — isolation — would lead to a downward spiral. The research is pretty definitive.
But I haven’t come across any helpful guidance about how much social engagement is necessary to reap the cognitive benefits it offers. Do I need to join a square dancing group? Volunteer at a food kitchen? Visit with friends more? And if so, how many times per week and for how many hours? It doesn’t appear to be like exercising where I can work out for 150 minutes each week and know that I’ve met my quota.
The reason I am raising these questions is that, as I mentioned above, I’m not good at establishing new relationships. I’m not good at chit-chat and icebreaker conversations. I dread new social situations for days in advance…which is quite strange when you consider my employment history.
As a B&B proprietor, I was constantly meeting new people who would pay good money to drive 2½ hours to stay at our place and talk with us. We used to joke that we were really selling friendship, not beds and pancakes. As a psychologist, my day was a steady stream of meeting new people and rapidly earning their confidence. And I loved it!
But it’s obviously different when you are playing a role and not just being you, which led to my reflecting upon who I really am when it comes to being with people.
Bottom line, I’m actually kind of a loner. I had close relationships in high school and college and still maintain some of those friendships to this day. I enjoyed being with many of my co-workers over the years, but there was never anyone I would call and ask if they wanted to hang out, much less open up to if I was having a personal problem. My wives, first Roberta and now Sally, provide(d) more than enough companionship for me.
Marrying Sally broadened my social network considerably. One of the prime determinants of our recent move was to be closer to her relatives and the friends she introduced me to when I entered her life. I thoroughly enjoy being with them and look forward to each gathering.
But is that enough?
I read a few published studies when preparing this post and I was surprised to see how ‘social engagement’ was being defined in the research. In one study it was operationalized as the sum of 5 factors. You earned 1 point for each ‘yes’ answer to the questions on this 5-point scale. 0-2 was considered low social engagement while 4-5 was considered high:
1. Are you married?
2. Do you live with someone?
3. Do you have someone you can ask for help when you have problems or difficulties?
4. Do you have someone to talk to when you need to share some of your thoughts?
5. Do you participate in social activities?
By this measure, I meet the criteria for high social engagement…and the protective cognitive benefits that come with it. If — heaven forbid — I were to lose Sally, though, I’d go from a ‘5’ to a ‘0’ overnight.
This scale, however, seems to be a better measure of social isolation than of social activity. Another study attempted to measure social engagement by asking participants to report how often they:
1. Go to restaurants, sporting events or play bingo
2. Go on day trips or overnight trips
3. Do unpaid community or volunteer work
4. Visit relatives’ or friends’ houses
5. Participate in groups
6. Attend church or religious services
The greatest benefit in slowing cognitive decline accrued to those who engaged (on average) in each of the six categories several times each month. Your score went up if you did any of them each week or every day.
Using this scale, Sally has it made! Me? Not so much. 😦 But at least now I have a sense of direction.
And on that note…I’ll leave you with this for your listening enjoyment.