Whether it's sitting down to a meal with a friend or going for a walk together, socializing is good for us—and that's not just based on the warm and fuzzy feelings we have after spending time with loved ones. "Social connections… not only give us pleasure, they also influence our long-term health in ways every bit as powerful as adequate sleep, a good diet, and not smoking," the experts at Harvard Health explain. "Dozens of studies have shown that people who have social support from family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer."
However, a recent study revealed that the specific types of social interactions we have can make a difference to our brain health—and that one aspect of them in particular is crucial for maintaining our cognitive health. Read on to find out what your friends might be doing that could increase your chance of developing Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.
Certain lifestyle habits can benefit your brain.
Dementia isn't just common; it's increasing significantly each year. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that approximately 55 million people are currently afflicted with dementia and estimates that by 2030, 78 million of us will be living with the condition. Spotting the early signs can help people obtain a diagnosis as soon as possible, which the Alzheimer's Association says is crucial in order to get the best treatment possible (although there is no cure for dementia).
Decreasing your risk of cognitive decline can be as simple as making certain healthy lifestyle choices. Doing yoga regularly, for example, has been called "weightlifting for the brain," and maintaining good oral hygiene can boost your brain health as well. There's even evidence that drinking tart cherry juice may help improve memory.
Social isolation and loneliness contributes to cognitive decline—but it turns out that talking to someone isn't the only aspect of social interaction that matters.
The pandemic made social interaction difficult.
The pandemic has impacted people in many ways over the past two years, and a lack of opportunities to socialize is just one of them. Zoom and other online meeting interfaces helped people keep in touch, but weren't a substitute for in-person engagement.
"When it comes to our human need to socialize and connect with others, face-to-face communication is still required," Psych Mind reports, referencing a 2011 study published in Social Indicators Research. "Researchers found that using the Internet for interpersonal communication had a negative impact on people's quality of life, whereas talking to a friend or family member face-to-face for just 10 minutes had a positive impact on quality of life."
Having good listeners in your life is important.
A 2021 study published in the journal JAMA Network Open helped shed light on how social interactions affect our brain health—in particular, the effect of listening on cognitive resilience.
In an article published by PLOS, cognitive resilience is defined as "the mechanism which enables some individuals to be more resilient to the pathological brain changes associated with [Alzheimer's disease] than others." In other words, someone with cognitive resilience may not manifest symptoms of dementia early on, or may be able to function well even with the disease.
"An association was identified between cognitive resilience and high listener availability—that is, being able to count on someone to listen to you when you need to talk," Holly Holmes, PhD, Director of Product Development at Elysium Health, said of the study.
In other words, having a good listener in your life makes a difference to your brain health.
If your friends aren't listening to you, it could be bad for your brain.
"The benefits of having a good listener in your life go way beyond just brain health," Joel Salinas, MD, lead author of the study, told CNN. However, he stressed that having friends who listen to you may help strengthen the parts of the brain that contribute to maintaining cognitive function and minimize any health- or age-related damage—and Holmes agrees.
"Previous studies have shown interactions between cognition and social support, but [the 2021 study published in JAMA] highlights listener availability as a specific form of social support domain that promoted cognitive health," she said, noting that researchers examined the effects of other aspects of social support, such as "having someone on hand to give good advice," but "did not see the same interactions. This suggests that there are unique benefits to having a close confidant who listens when you need to talk, which may be important in maintaining long-term cognitive vitality."
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