Does connecting with other people get harder as you get older?

or technically,

Social Coordination in Older Adulthood: A Dual-Process Model.

[See Original Abstract on Pubmed]

Authors of the study: Meghan L. Healey and Murray Grossman

Being able to relate to and connect with other people is an important part of staying happy and healthy at any age. Connecting with other people is especially important for your mental health. Having close friendships makes a stressful day not feel as bad and can even make it less likely that you experience anxiety or depression1. But for older adults, it can become more difficult to stay connected. NGG student Meghan Healey and her mentor Dr. Murray Grossman wanted to ask why that might be- are there any skills that take a hit as you get older and contribute to this increased risk of social isolation?

Social coordination is the process of making sure that you and another person understand a situation or problem that you are working on together. One example of social coordination is giving directions on a road trip. You need to use the information you have available (road signs, landmarks, and the map/GPS) and what you know about what the driver is seeing to get to where you need to go.

Social coordination requires two main skills: working memory and perspective-taking. Working memory is the ability to mentally keep information on-hand for 10 to 60 seconds at a time to easily use when needed. When giving directions, you use your working memory to remember the upcoming turns and whether they are lefts or rights, while also keeping in mind where you currently are. Perspective-taking involves picturing what another person might be seeing as well as considering what they might know or need to know in a particular situation. For example, figuring out which landmarks/road signs the driver can easily see is an example of perspective-taking.

While we don’t know what happens to your social coordination abilities as you get older, working memory and perspective-taking are more studied. Several studies found that working memory gets worse with age. However, the case is still open on whether perspective-taking ability gets better or worse over time. So, Meghan set out to measure how working memory, perspective-taking, and social coordination change as we age.

Meghan came up with a clever way to test each of these skills in the same task. She designed a game where the person playing sees a board with a bunch of objects on it. Next to the board is a cartoon avatar that sometimes can also see the board and sometimes can’t see it as well. It is the player’s job to ‘help’ the avatar by describing which object moves on the board. The amount of information the player gives (too little, too much, or just enough) tests perspective-taking and the number of objects that need to be considered tests working memory. For example, if the avatar is facing the board, then it doesn’t need as much information as when it is facing away from the board. Players that give the too much information when the avatar is facing the board, likely lack perspective taking skills (in this case, the ability to imagine what the avatar can see based on which way it is facing). How well people perform on the game measures social coordination. To test the effect of age on these skills, she asked young adults (20-30 years old) and older adults (56-60 years old) to play this game.

She found that older adults had more difficulty with the parts of the game that tested both working memory and perspective-taking. These results suggest that older adults had worse overall social coordination abilities. Based on what we know from other studies, worse social coordination abilities can lead to difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships. This provides a clue as to why older adults might be more likely to spend time alone than with friends. Based on these findings, we could benefit from future research that tackles how we can improve perspective-taking abilities of older adults to help them build towards healthier social lives.
About the brief writer: Sara Taylor  Sara is a third year graduate student interested in the genetic basis for social behaviors in autism.

About the brief writer: Sara Taylor

Sara is a third year graduate student interested in the genetic basis for social behaviors in autism.

Citations:

  1. Ganster, D. C., & Victor, B. (1988). The impact of social support on mental and physical health. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 61(1), 17-36.

If you are interested in learning more about how aging changes the way we interact with one another, check out Meghan’s paper here.

NGG GLIAaging, neurodevelopment