NEW YORK —Conversation may be the key to a healthy mind, a new study reveals. Researchers from New York University find that having a good listener in your life, such as a close friend or relative, boosts brain power and may stave off the onset of Alzheimer’s.
The team says supportive interactions protect against mental decline, even in younger people. Conversely, those in their 40s and 50s with no one to talk to displayed a cognitive age at least four years older than their peers.
“These four years can be incredibly precious. Too often we think about how to protect our brain health when we’re much older, after we’ve already lost a lot of time decades before to build and sustain brain-healthy habits,” says lead author Professor Joel Salinas in a university release.
“But today, right now, you can ask yourself if you truly have someone available to listen to you in a supportive way, and ask your loved ones the same. Taking that simple action sets the process in motion for you to ultimately have better odds of long-term brain health and the best quality of life you can have.”
Talking out your problems can make you more resilient
The study finds participants who had a shoulder to lean on the most displayed greater cognitive resilience. Researchers say this trait is the brain’s ability to function better than would be expected for an individual’s age.
The risk of brain-related illnesses, ranging from dementia to depression, also drops among people who have more social interactions. These conversations act like a flexible and fast-thinking back-up system for our grey and white matter. Neurologists believe stimulating activities, physical exercise, and positive conversations can all boost the brain.
“We think of cognitive resilience as a buffer to the effects of brain aging and disease,” Prof. Salinas explains.
“This study adds to growing evidence that people can take steps, either for themselves or the people they care about most, to increase the odds they’ll slow down cognitive aging or prevent the development of symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease—something that is all the more important given that we still don’t have a cure for the disease.”
Listening can be a life-saving ability
The results come from MRI scans and neuropsychological assessments of 2,171 people across the United States. These participants self-reported data on their social networks including information on the availability of listening, good advice, love, and affection. The team also looked into the group’s contact with people they were close with and emotional support.
Study authors scored cognitive resilience by total cerebral brain volume relative to global cognition. Prof. Salinas says one specific form of social support was identified as the key to cognitive resilience – listener availability. He recommends doctors ask patients if they have access to someone when asking them about their social history during check-ups.
“Loneliness is one of the many symptoms of depression, and has other health implications for patients,” Prof. Salinas continues. “These kinds of questions about a person’s social relationships and feelings of loneliness can tell you a lot about a patient’s broader social circumstances, their future health, and how they’re really doing outside of the clinic.”
Defeating Alzheimer’s with social interaction
Estimates show that around five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, a progressive condition that typically affects people over age 65. Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, interferes with memory, language, decision-making, and the ability to live independently.
However, Prof. Salinas says the results indicate people under 65 would benefit from taking stock of their social support. The participants were all members of the Framingham Heart Study. The report looks at the power of social networks and other health data since the 1940s in one Massachusetts town. Further analysis may shed fresh light on the biological mechanisms that link psychosocial factors to brain health.
“While there is still a lot that we don’t understand about the specific biological pathways between psychosocial factors like listener availability and brain health, this study gives clues about concrete, biological reasons why we should all seek good listeners and become better listeners ourselves,” Prof. Salinas concludes.
With no cure available currently, there is an increasing focus on lifestyle changes that can reduce the risk of developing dementia. Experts believe cases globally may triple to 150 million within the next three decades.
The study appears in JAMA Network Open.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.