Objectives: We tested whether social integration protects against memory loss and other cognitive disorders in late life in a nationally representative US sample of elderly adults, whether effects were stronger among disadvantaged individuals, and whether earlier cognitive losses explained the association (reverse causation).
Methods: Using data from the Health and Retirement Study (N = 16,638), we examined whether social integration predicted memory change over 6 years. Memory was measured by immediate and delayed recall of a 10-word list. Social integration was assessed by marital status, volunteer activity, and frequency of contact with children, parents, and neighbors. We examined growth-curve models for the whole sample and within subgroups.
Results: The mean memory score declined from 11.0 in 1998 to 10.0 in 2004. Higher baseline social integration predicted slower memory decline in fully adjusted models (P<.01). Memory among the least integrated declined at twice the rate as among the most integrated. This association was largest for respondents with fewer than 12 years of education. There was no evidence of reverse causation.
Conclusions: Our study provides evidence that social integration delays memory loss among elderly Americans. Future research should focus on identifying the specific aspects of social integration most important for preserving memory.