"In our study, socializing was just as effective as more traditional kinds of mental exercise in boosting memory and intellectual performance," said Oscar Ybarra, a psychologist at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) and a lead author of the study with ISR psychologist Eugene Burnstein and psychologist Piotr Winkielman from the University of California, San Diego.
During the study, funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation, the researcher examined ISR survey data to see whether there was a relationship between mental functioning and specific measures of social interaction.
The survey data included information on a national, stratified area probability sample of 3,610 people between the ages of 24 and 96. Their mental functions were assessed through the mini-mental exam, a widely used test that measures knowledge of personal information and current events.
Participants' level of social interactions was assessed by asking how often each week they talked on the phone with friends, neighbours and relatives, and how often they got together.
The researchers also looked at the connection between frequency of social contact and level of mental function on the mini-mental exam.
The study showed that the higher the level of participants' social interaction, the better their cognitive functioning. The relationship was reliable for all age groups, from the youngest through the oldest.
In another experiment, the researchers conducted a laboratory test to assess how social interactions and intellectual exercises affected memory and mental performance. They assigned 76 college students, ages 18 to 21, to one of three groupsósocial interaction group, intellectual activities group, and control group.
Participants in the social interaction group engaged in a discussion of a social issue for 10 minutes before taking the tests, while those in the intellectual activities group completed three tasks before taking the tests, which included a reading comprehension exercise and a crossword puzzle. Participants in a control group watched a 10-minute clip of "Seinfeld".
Thereafter, all participants completed two different tests of intellectual performance that measured their mental processing speed and working memory. "We found that short-term social interaction lasting for just 10 minutes boosted participants' intellectual performance as much as engaging in so-called 'intellectual' activities for the same amount of time," Ybarra said.
"To our knowledge, this experiment represents the only causal evidence showing that social interaction directly affects memory and mental performance in a positive way," he added. As per the findings, he says, visiting with a friend or neighbour may be just as helpful in staying sharp as doing a daily crossword puzzle.
Ybara also said that social isolation might have a negative effect on intellectual abilities as well as emotional well-being.