June 22, 2009 -- An active social life may help elderly people fight the effects of aging.
A new study shows that older adults who seldom participate in social activities experience a faster rate of motor function decline than those with an active social life. Researchers found that each point decrease in a person's social activity score was associated with a 33% faster rate of motor function decline.
Motor function decline such as decreased muscle strength, coordination, and dexterity is commonly associated with aging and related to dementia, potentially disabling falls, and even death.
Although motor function decline is a growing public health concern, researchers say little is known about factors that contribute to the problem or what interventions may help slow its progression.
Solitude Speeds Decline
The study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, analyzed the relationship between participation in social activities and motor function decline in 906 older adults followed for about five years. None of the participants had a history of Parkinson's disease, stroke, or dementia on entry into the study.
Researchers evaluated the participants' motor function by testing grip and pinch strength, balance on one leg, placing pegs on a board quickly, and walking in line heel to toe. The participants also filled out a survey to measure their social activity and used a five-point scale to assess their level of social activity. Examples of social activity included going to restaurants, playing bingo, volunteering, visiting friends or family, and attending religious services.
The results showed that elderly people with less social activity had a more rapid rate of motor function decline.
In addition, a one-point decrease in social activity was equivalent to being about five years older at the start of the study. Researchers say that translates to a 40% higher risk of death and 65% higher risk of disability.
Researcher Aron S. Buchman, MD and colleagues at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago say the findings raise the possibility that social activity may slow motor function decline and the negative health effects associated with it in elderly people. But they say more study is needed to confirm this as a cause-and-effect relationship.