Community groups keep us mentally sharp as we age

According to a large, longitudinal study, being part of a community group could help prevent the cognitive decline associated with age.

Social engagement through civic group activities, such as being a member of a political party, an environmental group, neighborhood watch, a voluntary service group or other community based groups, is associated with better cognitive function at age 50, according to a study published in the open access journal BMC Psychology.

“While the associations between adult social engagement and cognitive function at age 50 we found were moderate, they persisted after we adjusted for covariates, such as health, socioeconomic status and gender,” said University of Southampton Professor Ann Bowling.

The study utilized data from the British National Child Development Study (NCDS), a sample of the general population of England, Scotland, and Wales. Data was first taken when the participants were born in 1958 and then at various points throughout their lives.

By the age of 33, only 17 percent of participants were part of a civic organization and 14 percent were involved in one group; by the age of 50, 36 percent were in these types of groups and 25 percent were involved in one. In total, 8,129 of the study group took cognitive tests at 11 and also at 50.

Overall, almost one third of the respondent's cognitive abilities declined between the ages of 11-50, while mental abilities were unchanged in 44 percent of the group. Roughly one quarter had improved cognitive prowess at 50.

Once the data was analyzed, the researchers found that those who were involved in civic groups at the ages of 33-50 scored higher in the cognitive tests. Additionally, for each extra civic group that the individuals participated in, their cognitive scores increased. So, in this case, it seems that the more groups, the better.

“The implication is that if people continue to engage socially throughout life, maintaining related behaviors that require cognitive skills such as memory, attention, and control, there may be some protection from cognitive decline. Public health policy interventions aimed at promoting cognitive health could include encouraging civic engagement and providing people with opportunities for this.”

The present study used a large, longitudinal cohort with strong initial response rates, allowing the researchers to take into account complex interactions between social and biological processes and to adjust for various confounding factors. However, observational studies like this one cannot show cause and effect, but can describe possible links.

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