"As the population ages, interest has been growing about how to maintain healthy brains and minds," U-M psychologist Oscar Ybarra said. "Most advice for preserving and enhancing mental function emphasizes intellectual activities such as reading, doing crossword puzzles, and learning how to use a computer. But my research suggests that just getting together and chatting with friends and family may also be effective."
In a series of studies with older and younger adults, Ybarra examined the degree to which social engagement predicted cognitive, or mental, function. In one study, he analyzed data on 3,617 Americans between the ages of 24 and 96, including measures of how often participants reported talking on the phone with friends, neighbors and relatives; how often they reported getting together with them; and how many people they identified with whom they could share their most private feelings and concerns.
The interviewers administered a mental exam and a series of arithmetic tasks to assess participants' cognition and working memory. In analyzing the results, Ybarra controlled for physical health and physical activity as well as a range of relevant demographic factors, including age, education, gender, income, marital status and race/ethnicity.
"Across all age groups, the more socially engaged participants were, the lower their level of cognitive impairment and the better their working memory performance," said Ybarra, a faculty associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), the world's largest academic survey and research organization.
In another study, Ybarra analyzed the connection between social engagement and cognitive function, including everyday decision-making as well as memory and cognition, in nearly 2,000 older residents of four Middle Eastern countries: Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia. Again, he controlled for a wide range of factors that could account for any correlation and found that the more participants reported being socially engaged, the less cognitive impairment they suffered and the more they participated in everyday decision-making.
While Ybarra emphasizes that his analysis shows correlations between mental function and social engagement and does not establish causation in either direction, he believes that the link between the two cuts across cultures and is perhaps fundamental to what it means to be human.
"To some extent, the human mind evolved to deal with social problems, so it's not surprising that exercising that aspect of our minds has downstream benefits," Ybarra said. "In fact, it may be that our technical prowess depends on our social intelligence. In studies of primates and other mammals, the size of the brain has been correlated with the size of the social group the animals typically form."
By encouraging children to develop their social skills, he speculated, parents and teachers could also be helping them to improve their intellectual skills. And in the workplace, instead of encouraging employees to keep their noses to computer monitors and complete their tasks, effective supervisors might encourage them to take plenty of time out to socialize. Here, Ybarra noted, cultural differences often emerge, with Americans generally impatient about mixing socializing and work. "In some other cultures," he said, "people are much more likely to blend the two."
Established in 1948, the Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world's oldest survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited studies in the nation, including the Survey of Consumer Attitudes, the National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, the Columbia County Longitudinal Study and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China, and South Africa. Visit the ISR Web site at www.isr.umich.edu for more information. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), the world's largest computerized social science data archive.