Rush University Logo Simply staying active seems to be the key towards a healthy lifestyle. A latest study led by the Rush University Medical Center asserts that remaining socially active decreases the risk of disability in later life. Well, it appears that social activity reinforces the neural networks and musculoskeletal function required to maintain functional independence.

The study was conducted on 954 adults with a mean age of 82 years who are already enrolled in the Rush Memory and Aging Project. During the initial stage none of the subjects had any form of disability. All the volunteers were subjected to yearly evaluations that included a medical history and neurological as well as neuropsychological tests. In order to measure social activity, a questionnaire assessing whether and how often participants went to restaurants, sporting events or the teletract (off-track betting) or played bingo was completed. The questionnaire also asked about the day trips or overnight trips, volunteer work, visit to relatives or friends and participation in groups like the Knights of Columbus or joining religious services.

“Social activity has long been recognized as an essential component of healthy aging, but now we have strong evidence that it is also related to better everyday functioning and less disability in old age,” revealed lead researcher Bryan James, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in the epidemiology of aging and dementia in the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center. “The findings are exciting because social activity is potentially a risk factor that can be modified to help older adults avoid the burdens of disability.”

For analyzing disability, scientists asked the subjects whether they could perform six activities of daily living like feeding, bathing, dressing, toileting, transferring and walking across a small room without help. Volunteers were also made to perform three tasks requiring mobility and strength, such as walking up and down a flight of stairs, walking a half mile and doing heavy housework. Then their ability to perform ‘instrumental’ activities of daily living, namely using the telephone, preparing meals and managing medications were evaluated.

Difficulties with household management and mobility may be more common and represent less severe disability than difficulty with self-care tasks, so the measures represented a range of disability. It was pointed out that people with high level of social activity possibly were twice as likely to be free from a disability involving activities of daily living, than those with a low level of social activity. Also high level of social activity was presumably linked with 1.5 times higher chances to be free from disability related to instrumental activities of daily living or mobility. It was concluded that social activity plays a crucial role in the development of disability by strengthening the neural networks and musculoskeletal function necessary to maintain functional independence.

The study appears online and will be published in the April issue of the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences.