Forever Young Minds: How Social Connections Keep Elderly Brains Agile

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Our lives buzz with social connections, from impromptu chats at the store to cozy family dinners. We’re wired for it—whether it’s catching up with coworkers, joining a book club, or embracing the digital age through calls, emails, and social media. But did you know that every interaction, big or small, shapes our well-being? Let’s dive into the diverse tapestry of socializing and its profound impact on our lives.

 

We know that socializing with people we care about or find interesting is emotionally rewarding, and the reverse is emotionally taxing. In addition, scientists have learned relatively recently that positive social interactions are suitable for the brain. The Frequency of our social activity, the size of our social network, and our sense of social support all impact cognitive skills and brain health. Conversely, social isolation and negative social interactions can harm the brain. In this chapter, we’ll look at what the research says in these areas and how science can guide our decisions about our social lives.

How Does Being Social Keep Us Healthy?

We can all relate to the idea that being connected to and supported by others feels good. It could be our relationship with a partner or spouse, a long-standing connection with an old friend or group of friends, positive family ties, or camaraderie with coworkers. When we have these positive interactions, it does something for us in the moment from an emotional standpoint. It also improves our overall health and affects our basic physiology across our lifespan. We’ve known for many years that social support helps us manage stress and improves our cardiovascular health. Indeed, people who feel more supported have lower blood pressure, better endocrine function, and more robust immune systems. 

Our social network size is closely related to social support. It refers to how many people we have meaningful relationships with and regularly see. The size of our social network is also linked to health, and people with more friends and acquaintances tend to be healthier, live longer, and fight disease better. More generally, when we have enriching connections with others, we experience less stress, better manage the stress and soak in positive emotions more easily. This, in turn, helps the body operate at higher levels. Conversely, feeling less connected can lead us to make proverbial mountains out of molehills. And having fewer social ties sets up an increased risk of various physical problems like obesity and heart disease. 

We’re also learning more about the relationship between social connections and the brain. For example, when we have positive interactions with other people, the brain’s pleasure centers light up like a Christmas tree (a familiar metaphor in the neuroimaging community). In contrast, negative encounters tend to stir up active brain regions when we experience physical pain. This suggests that social tension and physical discomfort are closely related, particularly in how the brain processes these experiences.

How Does Social Activity Help the Brain? 

Growing evidence shows that the more socially active you are, the more your brain will be. Increased social activity is associated with better executive functioning, quicker thinking speed, and improvements in some types of memory. These findings are seen across the lifespan, although most published research has been conducted with older adults. The brain particularly benefits when we engage in multiple social activities rather than just one; a weekly coffee with a friend is good, but adding time to a hiking club or a community group is better. So, how much socializing is necessary for the brain to get a boost? As we’ll see, you don’t have to become a gregarious social butterfly to reap the brain-based rewards of socializing. 

Over the past 15 years, multiple studies have shown that being socially active translates into improved health and a better-looking and better-working brain. There is also evidence that being socially active reduces the risk of developing dementia. The most potent studies follow people over time to see whether staying socially engaged helps the brain. Social engagement is usually determined by spending time with friends, family members, or coworkers. The bottom line is that the more we interact with others, the more likely our brain and cognitive skills will be in good shape. 

Why social activity benefits the brain remains to be seen. However, when you think about the details of social interaction, the brain clearly gets a solid workout. You need to listen well and comprehend what the other person is saying, read body language (facial expressions, gestures) to interpret the context and emotion of the message, remember how this conversation might be related to distant or recent experiences, think about a response (or decide between multiple responses), and then respond, all in a very short period. 

We can also think of the emotional benefits of positive interactions: we feel more connected, less stressed out, and have a better sense of control over our environment. Reducing stress in various forms helps the brain. Getting a mood boost with social activity might be one of the main reasons the brain benefits when we get together. We have less of the potentially noxious hormone cortisol circulating in our bodies when our mood is brighter, and socializing regularly keeps our immune system firing on all cylinders. In addition, emotional support from others quiets the parts of the brain that light up when we feel threatened and ramps up brain regions that respond when we feel safe. 

Being more socially active also helps our cognitive skills even when we aren’t able to do other brain-boosting activities such as exercise, reading, or crossword puzzles. Studies often look at multiple types of activities and account for (or “control for”) one activity while analyzing another. In fact, being social is positive for the brain above and beyond other activities, such as exercise. 

A large study a few years ago found that after considering the effects of physical and mental activity, most socially active people showed the least amount of memory, spatial skill, and processing speed decline over 5 years. Even a tiny uptick in socializing reduced cognitive decline by almost 50%. This study was also interesting because personality type was accounted for; more introverted people tended to benefit from being more social. Other research has found that social activity can enhance our executive function skills—including working memory and mental flexibility—even if we’ve already experienced cognitive decline. Notably, there’s also evidence that being more social makes us feel like our memory is better, even independent of performance on cognitive tests. 

How about the social nature of our job? Some people have jobs where they need to be social throughout the day; others may be staring at a computer monitor most of the time. While the latter is not necessarily problematic (though periodically standing up, walking around, and socializing is generally a good idea), people with more socially active jobs are less likely to develop cognitive problems such as dementia later in life. And when we have more socially contained or isolated jobs, there’s evidence that we can make up for being less social at work by being more social outside of work. 

This raises another issue: Does it matter if our social activity is at work, at home, in the community, or something other than face-to-face? We know much more about the brain-related effects of how much we socialize (and, as we’ll talk about soon, the size of our social network) than how and where we interact with others. In-person social contact is better for the brain than email or texting; phone calls and video conferencing may be helpful for brain health (and promote positive emotions) but may not be as good as being physically present with a loved one. 

Some recent research related to the prevention of depression has some relevance here. In one large study with more than 10,000 participants, scientists gauged how often people were in touch with friends or family members face-to-face, by phone, or in writing (which included email). Those most socially active, quantified as three or more social contacts per week, were the least likely to become depressed. While in-person contact was the best way to go (particularly with friends), more frequent email contact with others was better than less contact. Frequency of telephone contact didn’t matter as much for one’s mood as in-person interactions. 

Perhaps we can learn from this study that when we can interact with others in person—particularly people we like—we should prioritize this over a phone call or email, when possible, for our mood. We can also bridge this idea to brain health. Considering that there are important links between cognitive and emotional function (and dysfunction, particularly depression), we can probably conclude that the more face-to-face interactions we have, the healthier our brains will be.

Social Networks and the Brain

What about the overall size of our social network? Does that confer additional brain-related benefits? Research has a lot to say about this aspect of socializing, too. And the bottom line here is that the more people we have in our broader social clan, the better our brain tends to function. Some of the early knowledge in this area came from the so-called Nun Study, where hundreds of nuns were studied over many years (during life and after death) to help understand why and how some people age better than others.

As we touched on earlier, one of the most remarkable findings from this study related to the appearance of the nuns’ brains on autopsy. While some of their brains looked very similar to those with full-blown dementia, during life, many of these nuns were functioning well day to day. In other words, there was something they were doing to reduce the impact of dementia-related brain changes on their daily cognitive skills. One likely possibility is that the breadth of their social networks (in addition to engagement in mental and physical activities) was preventing them from descending into dementia. As we’ll see, more recent research findings point in this very direction.

When researchers determine the size of someone’s social network, they often ask how many times one has seen a friend or relative over the past month. So, the bar is set relatively low for the amount of people one interacts with. Many of us see friends or family members daily. Hopefully, you’re in this category, but if you’re not, there are reasons to connect with new coworkers or people in the community or to reinvigorate a relationship with an old friend.

Some more compelling studies have found that the more people you connect with regularly or semi-regularly, the less likely you’ll show cognitive decline and the longer you’ll live.

A study from the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center sought to understand whether a more extensive social network was linked to fewer cognitive problems in people whom they studied for about 5 years. The scientists found that people with many social connections were almost 40% less likely to experience cognitive decline than someone with one primary social tie. This finding, and another result regarding the Frequency of social activity, was unchanged after accounting for other things affecting social connectedness, like marital status, educational level, annual income, and physical and mental activity. Other work has shown that the risk of dementia is relatively high in those with few or no consistent social contacts and that each additional person added to your social network—as long as these relationships are satisfying and supportive—further decreases the risk of cognitive impairment as you age. 

Following up on our Nun Study discussion, some of the science has more directly linked social network size to the impact of brain changes on our cognitive skills. A fascinating study tried to determine whether social networks could buffer the effects of pathological changes on the brain. They studied older adults who were healthy at the beginning of the study and chose the social network sizes of these adults via interviews. They also assessed cognitive skills such as working and episodic memory using neuropsychological tests. The study participants were tracked cognitively until they passed away. Then, the researchers examined the participants’ brains, which they had previously agreed to donate to the study. A noble contribution, to say the least.

The key result from the study was groundbreaking: the larger the participants’ social networks were during life, the less that brain disease affected their cognitive abilities. In other words, even if the autopsied brains appeared to be from individuals who had Alzheimer’s disease, the same people didn’t show the cognitive impairment usually found in Alzheimer’s while they were alive. Further, this pattern played out across multiple types of memory and overall cognitive ability. Research like this has poignantly clarified the importance of our social choices on how the brain works, even in the face of neurodegenerative disease.

It is also important to note that social network size isn’t everything; the quality of our social interactions is as meaningful. Some research has found that the more satisfied we are with others in our social networks, the less likely we are to develop dementia. As we’ll discuss later, frequent interactions that are negative or even toxic can have significant consequences for brain health.

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