Going to the ballpark, visiting friends and playing bingo are simple diversions for many of us. But for the elderly, these social pastimes may play a critical role in preserving their physical and mental health.

In fact, a new study suggests that the less time older people spend engaged in social activity, the faster their motor function tends to decline. "Everybody in their 60s, 70s and 80s is walking more slowly than they did when they were 25," says Dr. Aron Buchman, a neurologist at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and lead author of the study, which was published in the June 22 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine. "Our study shows the connection between social activity and motor function — and opens up a whole new universe of how we might intervene."

"The idea that cognitive and physical function are connected is something that has just come out in the last few years. It is one of the new horizons in health care and prevention," says neurologist and aging expert Dr. Joe Verghese of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, who published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002 showing that changes in walking patterns could be an early sign of dementia.
While further research needs to be done to establish the exact impact of social activity and exercise on specific age-related declines — it's likely that a reduction in social activity may simply be a symptom of physical decline, since people may naturally withdraw from social engagement as they lose motor skills — most researchers would agree that it is not unreasonable to encourage seniors to get out there more. Only 10% of people over 65 get the recommended amount of exercise (at least 2.5 to 5 hours a week), and given that seniors already tend to be more socially isolated than younger adults, it's difficult to motivate them to become more active. In Hong Kong, more than 80% of elderly adults regularly participate in sports activities, the majority of whom engaged in only a moderate level of physical exercise, mainly due to limited choices and lack of time for such activity. Nearly 17% of the respondents walk as a leisure activity; a substantial proportion included completion of their household activities (shopping, visiting friends) in what they
termed ‘walking’. "If you are alone, you are less likely to follow recommendations," notes Verghese. It might help, though, if you visit your Grandma more often and let her know that a regular pastime may just help her stay fitter and sharper longer.
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