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Social connections can provide huge mental and physical health benefits, particularly as we age.

Research shows that participating in hobbies and other social activities may lower the risk of developing some health problems, including dementia.

The need for social connectedness became even more apparent during the pandemic, when lockdowns led to long periods of isolation and increased concerns about physical and mental health, particularly among older Canadians who are considered among the most vulnerable.

Approximately one-quarter of Canadians, or about 9.5 million people, will be age 65 or older by the end of the decade, according to a 2021 federal government report . Statistics Canada reports that people aged 85 and older make up one of the fastest-growing age groups in the country, rising 12 percent since 2016.

The federal government has taken action to improve the lives of older Canadians, including providing ongoing programs to help them become engaged members of their communities.

Keeping socially active is critical to building and maintaining physical and mental well-being, says Vivien Brown, M.D., a family doctor and author of The New Woman's Guide to Healthy Aging.

She points to research  showing that women are twice as likely as men to suffer from dementia, depression and stroke as they age. About 70 percent of Canadians with Alzheimer's are women , she notes.

Brown says social connectivity is one of the four pillars that support healthy aging, alongside physical activity, disease prevention (eating well and getting vaccinated) and a balanced lifestyle (lowering stress and getting enough sleep).

For some people, social connectivity is as challenging to maintain as daily exercise and healthy eating.

"It means actively seeking out new experiences, continuously learning new things and purposely connecting with others. It takes some extra time and effort, but it's worth it," Brown says.

She uses the example of learning a new language: While it's possible to pick it up through digital courses, most people learn more quickly and find the results are more sustainable if they're speaking that foreign language with others in a social setting.

"The same applies to any activity that interests you," she says. "It's about being with other people doing things you really enjoy."

Social connectivity for preventative brain health

Having regular social connections also helps to improve brain function, which medical experts like Brown say is critical to maintaining brain health.

"Being social is a way of protecting your brain," says Brown, who also sits on the board of Women's Brain Health Initiative  (WBHI), based in Toronto. "We want our brains to be growing all the time—and that's partly what social connectivity does for us."

It's why she encourages some patients to keep working beyond the traditional retirement age—unless they have a very active retirement planned and can afford to stop working.

"Often people don't have a network to retire to; they don't necessarily have hobbies or friends outside the office," she says, which can put them at greater risk of social isolation.

"If you're going to retire, you need to not only plan financially but also plan for your physical and mental health.

Fighting isolation is something older Canadians will need to cope with if they plan to age in place—i.e., in their own homes versus in a seniors residence. Brown says the advantage of retirement communities is they typically offer various social activities to keep residents engaged.

"When people age in place, there has to be an effort not to be isolated," she says. "Everybody is different, but I think making an effort to create a network of friends and to have things you're involved in is really important as people age."

Tips on staying socially active

For those interested in becoming more socially connected, Brown recommends taking the time to carefully consider what truly interests them—such as gardening, cycling or antiquing—and finding local events or clubs that cater to those hobbies.

"It may take a while, and meeting new people may not always come naturally, but it's a good place to start," she says, adding that one activity can often lead to something else, and so on.

Brown also encourages people to reach out to friends or neighbours living alone.

"The next time you see them, stop and talk to them, whether it's about the weather or politics," she says. "Just engaging with them from time to time can help ease their feeling of isolation—and you'll both feel more connected."

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