New research suggests that just sitting around and chatting with friends may help keep our brains fit enough to fight off mental decline, especially as we age.
Yakking it up with cohorts, it turns out, may keep the mental machinery well oiled.
We've heard for years about what's supposed to happen as we get older. The old brain just doesn't click along at the same speed, the memory begins to fail, and the biggest intellectual challenge of the day may be deciding which channel to watch.
The way to fight that, so we've been told, is to keep the old noggin busy. So millions turn to crossword puzzles, reading and various hobbies, and that's supposed to help.
But to psychologist Oscar Ybarra of the University of Michigan, that picture looked very incomplete.
Ybarra was listening to the radio a few years ago when a report came on about all the things we can do to keep ourselves mentally sharper, like traveling and reading. But as a specialist in social cognition, Ybarra figured there was more to it than that.
"I thought about my grandparents, who lived to be quite old and remained quite lucid," Ybarra says. "They tended to be very active socially, and I thought there was something else going on here."
What was going on, he says, was the "mental gymnastics" that we all go through while interacting socially with others. We do it so often, and with seemingly so little effort, that we're unaware of the fact that just simply socializing requires a strong mental commitment.
"Especially when you're dealing with somebody you're trying to understand," Ybarra says. "You're trying to figure out what motives they have, what beliefs they have. That takes a lot of mental energy."
So Ybarra and colleagues from the University of Michigan and the University of Denver set out to determine if socializing really can help keep the brain in tune. In a new report, they say the answer is a resounding yes. And it doesn't just work for the elderly. They found that regardless of age, people who are more sociable suffer less mental decline than those who avoid social encounters.
"We have provided evidence showing that the degree to which people are socially engaged helps to sustain cognitive functioning," the researchers concluded.
Our brains are "put to use when we do what comes naturally to us — interact with other beings," they argue.
Chicken or the Egg Dilemma
The researchers relied on three previous surveys of several thousand persons in the United States and four Middle Eastern countries, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia. The participants, ranging in age from 24 to 100, were asked a wide range of questions concerning social activities, health, physical activity, and others. Then they were asked to solve problems involving memory and simple arithmetic to assess their mental abilities.
To determine how socially active they were, the participants were asked questions like how often they got together with friends and relatives, how often they talked on the phone, and how many people they knew with whom they could share their intimate feelings.
Regardless of age or nationality or ethnic origin or gender, the results were the same, Ybarra says. Those who were most active socially also showed less mental decline.
"The more participants were socially engaged, the less their cognitive impairment," the researchers concluded.
One could argue that the researchers got it backwards. People who suffered less cognitive impairment remained more socially engaged, so which came first here, the chicken or the egg?
Other researchers have found that as people decline mentally, they also tend to withdraw, so it's hard here to pin down the cause and the effect. Perhaps some are socially inactive because of mental decay, and perhaps some suffer from mental decay partly because they are socially inactive.
And Ybarra notes that such things as declining health and loss of income among the elderly can cause both social withdrawal and mental decline, making it more difficult to assess the contributions of social interaction.
Participants in the study who were judged to be physically attractive were found to be more socially active, and that's probably because a lot of folks would rather talk with a hunk or beauty queen than a wallflower. The beautiful people also fared better in terms of mental decline, and the researchers think that's attributable at least partly to all that socializing with people who were trying desperately to impress them.
Although the study didn't address this directly, Ybarra suspects that who you are talking to may also make a difference. The mental workout can be more intense, he suggests, if the other person really matters to you.
"Some interactions are going to provide more of a workout than others," he says. "I would think that just greeting the person who delivers the mail may not be as intensive as chatting with a good friend, or actually dealing with a hostile employer."
One problem addressed only indirectly in the study deals with older persons who feel they are no longer taken seriously. That's a common complaint from elders who have to deal with grown children who have decided they can no longer do anything for themselves. Their opinions are rarely sought, and all too often, when they speak, no one listens.
That can lead to one serious result.
"If you don't think you're being taken seriously, you're probably going to withdraw socially," Ybarra says, thus robbing the elderly of the social interaction that might help keep their brains alert.
The system works best, he says, when the conversation matters to both parties.
"That's what provides the framework," Ybarra says, "trying to understand other people's minds."
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.