Being Social May Ward Off Physical Decline

All of us will see some decline in our ability to get around as we age, but for people who are more socially active, this decline may happen more slowly, new research shows.

"Being more active in a wider array of activities looks like it might be good for you," Dr. Aron S. Buchman of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago told Reuters Health. Loss of motor function is a major public health problem, Buchman noted, and the nation's aging population is growing. "If it turns out to be true, it's something that we can intervene with on a large scale without costing society a lot of money."

Several studies have shown that being physically active helps stave off motor decline in older people, Buchman and his team note in the Archives of Internal Medicine, and there's growing evidence that social activities and other pursuits keep people's minds sharp and extend their lives. But to date, no one has looked at whether social activity might have physical benefits.

To investigate, Buchman and his colleagues looked at 906 people participating in a long-term study of aging. At the study's outset, all were quizzed on how frequently they engaged in six different types of social activity, from going out to restaurants to playing bingo and visiting friends. They also underwent a battery of tests of motor function.

People with higher levels of social activity had better physical function, the researchers found. A one-point lower score on the scale the researchers used to gauge social activity was equivalent to a person having the motor function of a person 5 years older.

And over 5 years of follow-up, people with lower social activity scores had a faster physical decline. People with lower levels of physical activity were also more likely to become disabled and more likely to die.

While it's possible that people who were more physically able were more likely to engage in social activity, Buchman and his team analyzed the results in a number of different ways to test whether the social activity-motor function link was causal. They controlled for a host of factors including disability, joint pain and depressive symptoms, and found the relationship remained. The link also persisted when they removed disabled people or people with Parkinson's disease from their analysis.

Research on mirror neurons, which are cells in the brain that activate when a person performs a certain movement - and also when someone watches another person do the same movement - suggests that a possible mechanism by which the social and the physical could be linked, the researcher noted.