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Pathways From Social Activities to Cognitive Functioning

Updated: May 21, 2021

Social activities are related to better #cognitive function through physical activity and mental health.

Cohn-Schwartz, E. (2020). Pathways from social activities to cognitive functioning: the role of physical activity and mental health. Innovation in Aging, 4(3), igaa015.


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One of the greatest challenges of old age is the risk of cognitive decline. Engagement in social activities has been identified as a possible protective factor. However, it is not yet clear what are the mechanisms underlying this association. This study aims to elucidate the pathways through which social activities impact cognitive functioning, focusing on physical activity and mental health as possible mediators.

Methods: The study utilized 3 waves of data—the fourth, fifth, and sixth waves of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe, collected in 2011, 2013, and 2015, respectively. It focused on respondents aged 60 and older. Cognitive functioning was assessed via immediate recall, delayed recall, and fluency. Social activities were measured by volunteering and attending social clubs. Data were analyzed using a structural equation modeling approach.

The results indicated a significant direct effect of social activities on cognitive functioning. That is, being socially active at baseline was related to better cognitive function 4 years later. The results also indicated the existence of indirect effects. Engaging in social activities was related to better mental health and more physical activities 2 years later, which were related to better subsequent cognitive performance.

The findings stress that social activities are associated with increases in physical activity and improvements in mental health, both of which contribute to better cognitive function. These results can encourage practitioners to promote participation in social activities to improve the cognitive function of older adults. These findings can also guide practitioners to pay particular attention to the mental health and physical health aspects of such social activities.

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