June 22 (HealthDay News) -- Older people who don't socialize much might be increasing their risk for declining motor function and hastening their death, researchers from Rush University Medical Center report.
On the positive side, sociable seniors who keep active physically and mentally tend to stave off the decline in physical ability often associated with aging, the scientists added.
"A broader range of activities in elders, including physical, social and cognitive activities, may slow the rate of age-related decline," said lead researcher Dr. Aron S. Buchman, an associate professor in the department of neurological sciences.
"Less frequent participation in social activity was associated with a more rapid rate of motor decline," he added.
The report is published in the June 22 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.
For the study, Buchman and colleagues collected data on 906 older adults who took part in the Rush Memory and Aging Project from 1997 to 2008. Over almost five years, the researchers measured various motor functions, including participants' grip and pinch strength; the ability to stand on one leg and on their toes; whether they could walk in line in a heel-to-toe manner; how quickly they could put pegs on a board, and their rate of index-finger tapping in a 10-second period.
Participants were also asked about social activities, such as eating out, volunteering, visiting with friends or relatives and attending religious services. The frequency of these activities was rated on a five-point scale.
Infrequent social activities were associated with a more rapid rate of decline in motor function. For every point decrease in social activity, the researchers noted a 33-percent faster rate of decline in motor function.
A one-point decrease in social activity was the same as being about five years older at the start of the study, they found. This decline in motor function was also linked with a more than 40-percent increased risk of dying and a 65-percent increased risk of developing disability, Buchman said.
"Social engagement may slow the rate of age-related motor decline," Buchman said.
The association between socialization and decline in motor function remained even after taking into account factors such as late-life physical and cognitive activity, disability, global cognition depressive symptoms, body composition and chronic medical conditions, the researchers noted.
Experts on aging weren't surprised by the findings. Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging in Vancouver, has seen this phenomenon in his own father.
"Inherently we know that being social is important in life and good, but a lot of times we don't relate it to physical health, " Milner said.
"My dad is 77, he doesn't get out, he just sits around all day," Milner said. "He retired two years ago and probably lost his purpose for life. He has just literally declined and aged in front of me, and now looks as old as my grandfather does at 98."
Before he retired, Milner's father was socially engaged. "He was vibrant, now his skin color has changed, just everything has changed," Milner said.
The factors that contribute to the decline are physical and psychological, Milner said.
"We are social beings," Milner said. "If you are socially engaged, you are out and about and getting some movement. Friends are good, being involved in social activities is good. If you are engaged in life, you are engaged in all the things that keep you healthy."
SOURCES: Aron S. Buchman, M.D., associate professor, department of neurological sciences, Rush University Medical Center, Chicago; Colin Milner, CEO, International Council on Active Aging, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; June 22, 2009, Archives of Internal Medicine