An active social life may be a secret to brain health

Ask Edith Smith, a proud 103-year-old, about her friends, and she’ll give you an earful.

There’s Johnetta, 101, whom she’s known for 70 years and who has Alzheimer’s disease. “I call her every day and just say, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ She never knows, but she says hi back, and I tease her,” Smith said.

There’s Katie, 93, whom Smith met during a long teaching career with Chicago Public Schools. “Every day we have a good conversation. She’s still driving and lives in her own house, and she tells me what’s going on.”

Then there’s Rhea, 90, whom Smith visits regularly at a retirement facility. And Mary, 95, who doesn’t leave her house anymore, “so I fix her a basket about once a month of jelly and little things I make and send it over by cab.” And there are Smith’s fellow residents at a Chicago seniors community, whom she recognizes with a card and a treat on their birthdays.

Without her best friend, Grayce, whom she’s known since high school, and friends who live in her condominium complex, Evelyn Finegan, 88, might have become isolated. Another SuperAger, Finegan is hard of hearing and has macular degeneration in both eyes but otherwise is astonishingly healthy.

“It’s very important to keep up with your friends – to pick up the phone and call,” said Finegan, who talks to Grayce almost daily and chats with four other friends from high school on a regular basis.

Today, the staples of Finegan’s life are her church; a monthly book club; volunteering at a resale shop; socializing with a few people in her building; attending a club of Welsh women; and seeing her daughter, her son-in-law and grandchildren, who live in Oregon, whenever she can.

“It’s so nice to spend time with Evelyn,” said her upstairs neighbor, June Witzl, 91, who often drives Finegan to doctor’s appointments. “She’s very kind and very generous. And she tells you what she believes so you really feel like you know her, instead of wondering what’s on her mind.”

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Graham is a columnist for Kaiser Health News. KHN’s coverage related to aging and improving care of older adults is supported in part by the John A. Hartford Foundation.