How close friendships keep your memory sharp as you age

Hold on to friends, hold on to sharper memory, a new study says. (Photo: Getty Images)
Hold on to friends, hold on to sharper memory, a new study says. (Photo: Getty Images)

Alzheimer’s disease is the only top cause of death in America that can’t be prevented, cured, or slowed down. So it’s understandable that people want to do what they can to lower their risk of cognitive decline. Now, a new study has found a surprising factor might be an important part of a larger recipe for aging brain health: maintaining close friendships.

For the small but powerful study, which was published in PLOS One, researchers analyzed SuperAgers, i.e. people who are at least 80 years old who have cognitive ability that’s at least as good as people who are in their 50s and 60s. The scientists asked 31 SuperAgers to fill out the Ryff 42-item Psychological Well-Being questionnaire, which is commonly used to measure a person’s psychological health.

When the researchers compared the results with those of people in a control group, they found that the SuperAgers scored significantly higher in having positive relations with other people. As a result, the researchers concluded that having positive, warm, and trusting friendships may help slow cognitive and memory decline over time.

Having good relationships may help because socializing is dynamic and makes you think quickly, study co-author Emily Rogalski, PhD, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “You respond based on what’s happening in the moment — that’s work for your brain,” she says. Regularly socializing, then, can help keep a person’s mind active, lowering their risk of cognitive decline.

Of course, everyone feels comfortable with different levels of socializing, and that’s OK. “This doesn’t mean that you have to be throwing parties all the time,” Rogalski says. “Some people prefer to have strong social relationships with a few individuals while others may prefer interaction in large groups—socializing comes in different forms.”

Daniel Franc, a neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Lifestyle that he sees this effect in his practice, which is why he encourages his patients to try to boost their social network if they don’t have one. “It takes a lot of brain power to meet people and have social interactions,” he says. “This really makes an argument for going into a communal living situation if someone lives alone.”

But it’s unlikely that socializing alone will help reduce your risk of cognitive decline. Eating right, exercising, using your brain a lot for tough or challenging tasks, getting a good education when you are younger, and addressing mental health issues like anxiety and depression if you experience them are also important, Amit Sachdev, M.D., an assistant professor and director of the Division of Neuromuscular Medicine at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Sachdev points out that it’s hard to say which comes first — the socialization or the clear mind.

“They key question is if being very social leads to the brain preserving its wiring and connections later in life or if a brain that is wired more robustly to begin with leads to being more social,” he says. Still, socializing regularly can’t hurt.

Rogalski says it’s difficult to tell how much strong friendships influence a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s when compared to other recommendations like eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly, but it does seem to be an important component. “There’s no magic pill that we know of at this point that’s going to guarantee that you don’t get Alzheimer’s, but certain choices are likely to be better for you,” she says. “If you want to stay in the low-risk category, having good social relationships and doing other things to keep your brain active tend to show benefits.”

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