The University of Texas at Austin is using a $2.4 million, five-year grant from the National Institute on Aging to study how social interactions improve the health of older adults. Participants will use wearable electronic devices and cell phone apps to monitor their physical activity and social interactions in real time for several days.

“This study will examine how social engagement—connections to family, friends and community—mitigates potential cognitive and physical declines in late life and improves well-being,” says Karen Fingerman, PhD, lead investigator for the new study and a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences and the Department of Psychology.

Past research on the links between social interactions and health largely has been based on people’s self-reported physical activity, cognitive activity and social interactions. Self-reporting is often flawed, however, so this study will compare self-evaluations with measures of physical, social and cognitive activity tracked by devices.

“It’s fascinating to see what people think about themselves, versus what we can measure objectively about them,” Fingerman says. “We have low self-awareness in our lives. We’re going to be able to capture what’s really going on with people that they may not be able to tell us.”

The study will involve about 300 people aged more than 65 years in the Greater Austin area, representing diverse ethnic, social and economic backgrounds. Participants will start with a self-evaluation of physical activity and social interactions, as well as a test of cognitive abilities. Then each will wear an electronic device akin to a very high-resolution fitness tracker on their wrist that measures caloric expenditures (which correlate with overall physical activity), for several days. Through cell phone apps, they will also track social and cognitive activities.