By JUDD MATSUNAGA, Esq.
Getting older? On the bright side, there are some benefits. For one, I just started getting “senior rates” at the Los Verdes Golf Course. On the not so bright side, I’ve lost 30 yards off the tee. And when I bowl, I often see two blurry pins 60 feet down the lane when there’s actually only one pin standing. So, I’d aim in the middle and would usually barely miss to the side of the phantom pin.
The good news is that declining brain health and cognitive loss are NOT inevitable. According to a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, there are “six cornerstones to any effective brain health and cognitive fitness program.” Part 1 of this two-part series (published Sept. 30, 2023) covered Step 4 — Challenge your brain. This second article will cover Step 5 — Nurture social contacts.
Did you know that strong social interactions can protect your memory and cognitive function as you age? Humans are, by nature, social creatures. Research is demonstrating that people with strong social ties are less likely to experience cognitive declines than those who are alone. For example, women with a large social network are less likely to develop dementia than women with fewer connections.
The opposite is also true. People who feel lonely face more rapid cognitive losses. In the largest study on the subject, researchers at Florida State University College of Medicine followed 12,000 participants over 10 years. They found that feeling lonely increased the risk of dementia by 40%, according to results published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Depression, which often goes hand-in-hand with loneliness, also correlated to faster cognitive decline.
Whether you’re having a conversation or playing a game of tennis with friends, social contact stimulates and challenges your brain. Social activities require you to engage in several important mental processes, including attention and memory. Frequent engagement helps strengthen neural networks, slowing normal age-related declines. It may also help delay the onset of dementia, in part by strengthening cognitive reserve.
Having a strong network of people who support and care for you — and knowing that you can rely on them — can also help lower your stress levels, which in turn affects cognition in multiple ways. People with strong social networks not only tend to report less stress in their lives — a subjective measure — but they also show less of it on objective measures.
People with stronger social networks also tend to have better physical health, including lower rates of heart disease and other conditions that compromise brain health. Friends and family can encourage you to maintain better habits — for example, urging you to get more exercise, see a doctor when you’re sick, and eat better. And if you do get sick, having people to care for you — both emotionally and physically — can improve your odds of survival.
Various studies have hinted at the ways different types of social engagement may enhance cognitive function:
• Playing chess, mah-jongg, or a card game like bridge improves episodic memory — your ability to remember specific events. While some of the benefit comes from the game itself, the social setting (as compared with playing against a computer) promotes emotional connection and enhances the benefits
• Volunteering in an educational capacity — for example, by teaching children how to read — may slow age-related atrophy in brain regions needed for planning and organizing. Children’s unexpected reactions and questions also force you to think on your feet.
• Conversations with friends and family not only expose you to new information, but also force you to frame your thoughts in different way
• Ballroom dancing, group exercise classes, and team sports combine the cognitive benefits of physical activity with social interaction.
Ironically, just as your health begins to decline and you need social connections the most, they become more difficult to find and maintain. With increasing age, you retire from the workplace, further reducing your daily network of contacts. Later, mobility issues and chronic health conditions may keep you house-bound. Older family members and friends start to pass away, while children and grandchildren start independent lives of their own.
But, growing older or having to stay at home need NOT prevent you from making new connections. Here are a few ideas to help you forge new friendships, whatever your age or stage of life.
(1) Say hello. Introduce yourself to a new neighbor or start up a conversation on social media with someone who shares one of your interests. During the course of your conversation, you might discover a sense of camaraderie that could launch a new friendship. You might find that a simple smile quickly broadens your social horizons. When you smile, you give others the impression that you’re friendly and approachable, and someone else just might walk up and start a conversation with you
(2) Join a group or club. Do you like to play golf or tennis? Are you fond of photography, crafting, or chess? Look for a club, class, or group in your area made up of people who share your interest. Check with universities, the YMCA, community centers, and your local library. Or search for an online program. You’ll get even more of a cognitive boost if you take part in an intergenerational program that includes people of all ages.
(3) Reach out. Friends come and go over a lifetime, and it’s common to lose touch with people as you move, change jobs, or enter another stage of life. Search through your address book or Facebook to find former connections. Then, reach out by phone or email to see if you can rekindle an old relationship.
(4) Volunteer. Donating your time to a good cause offers double benefits: you get to meet a whole new circle of contacts while doing something to help others. Choose your volunteer position based on your interests and skills. For example, if you used to be a teacher, you might tutor underprivileged children or teach inmates in a youth prison online.
(5) Get a part-time job. If you’re retired, see if you can find opportunities for part-time work. Use your lifetime of experience to find a job in your previous field. Or simply do something you enjoy, whether it’s working part-time in an art gallery or teaching continuing education classes. No matter what job you take, you’ll make new social connections while earning money.
(6) Try something new. Take part in an activity you’ve never done before. Sign up for classes at your local community center — perhaps a new language, ballroom dancing, or pottery-making. You’ll meet a whole new group of people while simultaneously challenging your brain.
You may ask, “Just how many relationships do I need to protect my health?” There is no specific number. In some ways, the more, the better. For example, a larger social network can offer more friends and loved ones who can lend a hand in times of need. Even so, you can surround yourself with a huge network of friends and still feel profoundly lonely if those friendships aren’t meaningful.
There was a time when, if you wanted to connect with a friend, you either had to go to his or her home or pick up the phone and call. Today, computers and the Internet have expanded our social world exponentially. With the help of Skype or FaceTime, you can now see loved ones while you talk to them. Sites like Facebook and Classmates.com enable you to keep up with old friends, many of whom you likely would have lost touch with otherwise.
Older adults are turning to social media in increasing numbers. In fact, the fastest-growing segment in social networking is users ages 74 and older. An estimated 73% of seniors use the Internet today, up from just 14% in 2000, according to Pew Research Center. For seniors who are home-bound because of mobility issues, or those who live far away from family and friends, the Internet can provide a lifeline — a way to reduce social isolation, loneliness, and depression.
Tablets or laptop computers may be easier for older adults to use. Age can affect vision, hearing, and finger dexterity, making it challenging to use social media and other apps on a cellphone or other small device with a tiny screen and speakers. Research suggests that positive online interactions target the brain’s reward centers. Social media and other online channels also benefit cognition by continually presenting your brain with new learning challenges.
It’s true that time spent online does not provide the rich experience that in-person contact does. You can’t cover as much territory in a series of messages as you can in a real conversation, nor do you reap all the rewards of human contact — a smile, a light touch on the arm, the joy of a shared experience. In fact, some research indicates that the more time people spend on social media sites like Facebook, the more unsatisfied they are with their lives.
This may be because some people turn to social media to counteract existing feelings of sadness or social isolation, or because they become envious when they compare their friends’ accomplishments with their own, but it suggests the medium may not be the cure-all for loneliness. But when your primary online contacts are people you’ve never met in person, your risk of feeling isolated can actually increase.
The challenge is not just to widen your social network online, but to use technology to maintain relationships with the people who are truly meaningful to you — your closest friends and family. Along with the time you spend on social media, also carve out time for real-world interactions like book clubs and dinners out with friends when (and if) you can.
In conclusion, there is just one more thing to promote the health of your brain. The human brain has a property that the brains of most other animals lack: it allows you to envision yourself in the future. Prospecting (the ability to imagine what it would be like to make something happen) is an essential brain function. You need it in order to define your purpose in life — that is, to develop a vital plan or reason for being that transcends you as an individual.
What gives your life meaning and purpose? For some people, it is their religious beliefs. For others, it’s the future of their children, or a positive contribution to their community, the larger world, art, literature, or the health and well-being of others. One thing is universal — to feel that your life is well lived, you need to look beyond your own immediate pleasures and comforts.
As philosophers have argued throughout the ages, lasting happiness requires that you focus on concerns outside of yourself. Meaning is found in concern for others — the desire to reduce their suffering and improve their lives. Try thinking of things you can do to help or cheer up other people. It doesn’t matter how big or ambitious these plans are. Small acts of kindness shown to co-workers, family, friends, or even strangers can help both them and your brain.
Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in estate/Medi-Cal planning, probate, personal injury and real estate law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena and Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.