Senior Citizens Most Involved with Social Activity
Least Likely to Become Disabled
Seniors reporting a high level of social activity
about twice as likely to remain free of a disability involving
activities of daily living
Feb. 17, 2011 - Afraid of becoming disabled in old
age, not being able to dress yourself, or walk up and down the stairs?
Staying physically active before symptoms set-in could help. But so
could going out to eat, playing bingo and taking overnight trips,
according to a new study of senior citizens with an average age of 82.
According to research conducted at Rush University
Medical Center, higher levels of social activity are associated with a
decreased risk of becoming disabled. The study has just been posted
online and will be published in the April issue of the Journal of
Gerontology: Medical Sciences.
American senior citizens who say they're happy simply part of an era
that predisposed them to good cheer? Or do most people whether born
and raised in boom times or busts have it within themselves to reach
their golden years with a smile?
"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," said 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."
The study included 954 older adults with a mean age
of 82 who are participating in the Rush Memory and Aging Project, an
ongoing longitudinal study of common chronic conditions of aging. At the
start of the investigation, none of the participants had any form of
disability. They each underwent yearly evaluations that included a
medical history and neurological and neuropsychological tests.
Social activity was measured based on a
questionnaire that assessed whether, and how often, participants went to
restaurants, sporting events or the teletract (off-track betting) or
played bingo; went on day trips or overnight trips; did volunteer work;
visited relatives or friends; participated in groups such as the Knights
of Columbus; or attended religious services.
To assess disability, participants were asked
whether they could perform six activities of daily living without
help: feeding, bathing, dressing, toileting, transferring and walking
across a small room.
They were also asked whether they could perform
three tasks that require mobility and strength: walking up and
down a flight of stairs, walking a half mile and doing heavy housework.
Finally, they were asked about their ability to
perform what are referred to as "instrumental" activities of
daily living, such as using the telephone, preparing meals and managing
medications. Difficulties with household management and mobility are
more common and represent less severe disability than difficulty with
self-care tasks, so the measures represented a range of disability.
Results showed that a person who reported a high
level of social activity was about twice as likely to remain free of a
disability involving activities of daily living than a person with a low
level of social activity, and about 1.5 times as likely to remain free
of disability involving instrumental activities of daily living or
Why social activity plays a role in the development
of disability is not clear, James said. Possibly, social activity may
reinforce the neural networks and musculoskeletal function required to
maintain functional independence.
Future research is needed to determine whether
interventions aimed at increasing late-life social activity can play a
part in delaying or preventing disability, James said.
Other researchers at Rush involved in the study
were Patricia Boyle, PhD, Dr. Aron Buchman and Dr. David Bennett.
Rush is a not-for-profit academic medical center
comprising Rush University Medical Center, Rush University, Rush Oak
Park Hospital and Rush Health.
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