Relying on a network of family and friends for emotional support may slow the mental decline associated with aging, and elderly singles may stay mentally quicker than married couples, according to new data from the MacArthur Studies of Successful Aging. The study appears in the July 2001 issue of Health Psychology.
“Emotional support was a significant, independent predictor of maintenance of better cognitive function over (the) follow-up, independent of other known risk factors for cognitive aging,” states Teresa Seeman, Ph.D., of the University of California, Los Angeles.
Seeman and colleagues also report the unexpected finding that unmarried participants had better mental function during the follow-up period than those who were married.
“Presence of a spouse has generally been found to predict better health outcomes. However, in this older cohort, presence of a spouse may be associated with greater burdens for care of the spouse, which may have negative effects on cognition,” they said.
Nearly 1,200 men and women between the ages of 70 and 79 years participated in the MacArthur survey, and all were considered to be in good health, both physically and mentally, at time of entry. They were followed for seven and a half years.
This study’s findings also show that the association between emotional support and mental function was not caused by other psychological factors such as depression or a person’s belief that they could alter their life. This “is noteworthy since these latter two factors might be expected to serve as mediators of the effects of emotional support on cognition,” Seeman says in the study.
The study also showed that those who reported more frequent conflict/demands from social relationships had better mental functioning, which may reflect greater participation in complex social interaction on the part of those subjects.
Earlier research has shown that heightened physiological reactivity and arousal is associated with greater cognitive decline. This study showed that emotional support had a tempering effect on reactivity and arousal, suggesting a possible biological mechanism for the observed relationship between such support and improved cognitive functioning.
“In contrast to nearly all previous studies which rely on measures designed to identify significant cognitive impairment indicative of dementia, the cognitive assessments available in the MacArthur Study provide more nuanced assessment of major domains of cognitive function such as language, verbal and nonverbal memory, abstract reasoning and spatial ability,” Seeman said.