New Study Investigates Which Social Connections Help Improve Brain Health
Having social connections is linked with many health benefits, including improving your ability to recover from stress and anxiety, improving sleep and wellbeing, promoting physical activity, and lowering the risk of developing certain diseases. A new study adds more evidence to the last point, finding that certain types of social interaction are linked with a lower risk of cognitive issues.
Research recently published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, and conducted by researchers at UNSW Sydney, involved a metanalysis of more than a dozen studies from across the globe focused on the role of social connection as we age. It found that having structured and quality connections was linked to better brain health and longevity.
Dr. Suraj Samtani, first author and clinical psychologist/researcher at UNSW Sydney’s Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing, says, “We know from previous research that social connections are important for our health and being isolated puts us at higher risk of dementia and death. Our goal was to find which social connections protect us from dementia and death.”
To study this, researchers analyzed 13 different studies on adults aged 65 and older from North America, Europe, South America, Asia, Africa, and Australia. The team focused on types of social connections, like being married, living with people, or being involved in a community group; the function of these connections (i.e. social support or having a confidante); and the quality of these relationships. They then compared measurements of these connections with incidence of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), dementia, and mortality.
The analysis showed that monthly or weekly interactions with family and friends – and having a confidante – reduced the risk of dementia. Meanwhile, the risk of MCI was lower among those with a social connection structure, like being married or in a relationship, weekly community group engagement, or weekly interactions with friends and family, as well as having high quality connections like this.
Structured social connection and having someone to talk to were also linked with a lower mortality risk.
The findings mirror those of other studies, which have found that social isolation leads to lower brain volume, group activities may improve cognitive function in those who already have dementia, and that supportive listening is linked with better brain health.
The UNSW Sydney researchers say their findings show the importance of prioritizing social connection.
Dr. Samtani says, “Try to meet with friends and family at least once a month, take part in community activities like volunteering or a rotary club, and open your heart to someone when you feel stressed. Living with others, for example in an intergenerational household, is also helpful.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also offers some tips on increasing social connections. Those include spending more time with family and friends, joining a group or class related to a hobby, spending time with others in the outdoors, volunteering, meeting new people with different outlooks on life, getting to know neighbors, and providing social support to loved ones when they need it.Whizzco