The social aspect of a person’s life is very important for maintaining brain health and can be divided into different factors: social network, social activity and social integration.
The first can be summarised as the number of friends and relatives around you; the second, as the amount of direct contact you regularly have with them; and the third, as your active participation in society in general.
Social integration can be considered, for example, as participation in different associations, day centres, religious groups or other entities.
Recent studies have shown that apart from the size of our social network and the number of relationships we have, social integration also plays a very important role in reducing the risk of cognitive decline and the development of dementias.
The Spanish study Envejecer en Leganés (Ageing in Leganés) analysed the impact of social integration on cognitive decline, and demonstrated that people who were not part of any group or association, and who did not attend elderly day centres or religious services, were between one-and-a-half and two times more likely to develop cognitive decline over the next four years.
According to the authors, these effects could have different origins.
One possibility is that these activities and the social relations they involve may represent a continuous mental stimulation that can protect against pathological processes.
Another explanation is more psychosocial, that is, better social integration entails more contact and being more active socially and this could generate these beneficial effects.
Finally, these effects could be derived from physiological factors. In this sense, social integration could reduce stress, which favours degenerative processes, and thus exert this protective effect on the brain.
One type of activity that can be considered a part of social integration is volunteering.
An important study that followed a group of 2,500 people for eight years has identified volunteering as one of the activities that can help maintain proper cognitive functioning during the ageing process.
This type of activity has also been associated with lower hypertension, lower mortality and an increased perception of well-being.
This and other studies suggest that the beneficial effects of volunteering may depend on the social aspect it involves, the mentally stimulating aspect and also on more emotional aspects such as gratitude.