Public Release: 

Emotional support keeps brain going into old age

Center for Advancing Health

Relying on a network of family and friends for emotional support may slow the cognitive decline associated with getting older, and single older people may stay mentally sharper than married couples, according to a new analysis of data from the MacArthur Studies of Successful Aging.

Nearly 1,200 men and women between the ages of 70 and 79 years participated in the MacArthur study and all were considered to be in good health, both physically and cognitively, at time of entry. They were followed for 7.5 years.

"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," says Teresa Seeman, Ph.D., of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Seeman and colleagues also report the unexpected finding that unmarried participants had better cognitive 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 say.

The study appears in the July issue of Health Psychology.

"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 says.

They also found that those who reported more frequent conflict/demands from social relationships had better cognitive 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.

This study's findings also show that the association between emotional support and cognitive 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," she says in the study.


The study was supported by grants from the John A. Hartford Foundation/American Federation for Aging Research Medical Student Geriatrics Scholars Program, the MacArthur Research Network on Successful Aging, the National Institute on Aging, the AARP Andrus Foundation and the Alzheimer's Association.

Health Psychology is the official, peer-reviewed research journal of the Division of Health Psychology (Division 38), American Psychological Association. For information about the journal, contact Arthur Stone, Ph.D., at (631) 632-8833.

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