activities as a possible protective factor against dementia (e.g., Verghese et al., 2003). However, the construct of social engagement as a behavioral variable supportive of cognitive health has not been systematically considered in either the cognitive or social psychological literature. Although there is a long history of research on the relationship between social ties and psychological and physical health, less is known about the relationship of social engagement to cognitive health. Thus, because it is a promising yet neglected topic at the intersection of social psychology and adult development and aging, more fully investigating the causal relationships between social engagement and cognition is scientifically—and socially—essential.


It is widely accepted that social engagement is related to many positive outcomes in older adults. People with more social ties have been found to live longer (see reviews by Antonucci, 2001; Bowling and Grundy, 1998), to have better health (see Berkman, 1985; Vaillant, Meyer, Mukamal, and Soldz, 1998), and to be less depressed (Antonucci, Fuhrer, and Dartiques, 1997).

A number of factors occur with older age that may increase the likelihood of decreased participation in meaningful social and intellectual activities in older adulthood. Older adults are retired, not raising children, and have fewer positions of authority than middle-aged and younger adults, so that their lives are not necessarily structured to maintain engagement. In a recent study, older adults (up to age 85) reported being less busy than younger adults (age 35 and older), and older adults described themselves as leading more routine and predictable lives (Martin and Park, 2003). While it would be inaccurate to characterize most older adults as plagued by loneliness, irreplaceable relationships are inevitably lost as people age. The differences in the types of social networks that older adults and younger adults have are well-established: as discussed in Chapter 2, older people have a smaller circle of close relatives and friends, particularly those who are important to them and from whom they derive the most pleasure (Carstensen, Isaacowitz, and Charles, 1999).

Social activities do not inevitably lead to meaningful engagement with others. Moreover, social ties are not always positive, and it is important to recognize that increased engagement may not reliably enhance life satisfaction, as engagement with other people has the potential to be stressful as well as supportive (see Rook, 1992). Thus, it is essential that research on social engagement and cognition simultaneously focus on characterizing the relevant features of social relations that facilitate cognition while testing the effects of social engagement on cognition.

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement