Close friendships help our mental well-being. We intuitively know this and love our friends for it. We experience this positive mental well-being effect whenever friends provide emotional support when the going gets tough, practical support when we need an extra pair of ‘hands on deck’, and when they help us to expand our thinking about ourselves and the world from different perspectives. Now, new research out October 2017 suggests that close friendships may also prevent cognitive decline as we age.
The study by Maher et al. (2017) looked at the memory, psychological well-being and positive social relationships of SuperAgers – ‘adults over age 80 whose performance on tests of episodic memory, the type of memory that shows decline with aging and dramatic decline in Alzheimer’s dementia, is at least as good as individuals 20 to 30 years their junior.’ These SuperAgers were compared with a group of non-SuperAgers or ‘cognitively average-for-age’ adults.
Researchers discovered that whilst both groups of adults had high levels of psychological well-being, SuperAgers reported greater levels of positive social relationships compared with the cognitively average-for-age adults. Interestingly, SuperAgers have also been found to have a higher density of neurons in the part of the brain considered to be involved in social bonding, social intuition, and emotion regulation. Perhaps this is why SuperAgers have more positive relationships and perhaps it is these positive relationships that prevent their brain’s health declining.
We often hear about eating the right foods and having the right lifestyle habits to maintain good mental and physical health, but we don’t as often hear medical professionals recommending a dose of friend-time once or twice a week. That would be my recommendation: friend-time, once or twice a week. People are powerful and if positive social relationships help us to prevent brain decline as we age and help prevent horrible conditions like dementia, then it’s important that we build our social skills in our younger days so that we can use them to our health’s advantage as we age. One thing is for sure, there are no guarantees about whose brain will decline quicker and who will contract a severe physical illness as they age but you can and should take preventative measures now. It is possible that these SuperAgers are SuperAgers because of positive friendships they’ve had in their younger days.
Application To Your Own Life
Have a think about where your social circle is taking you and how your current relationships are affecting you and your life. Here are some important questions for you:
- Do you have enough positive relationships in your (offline) social network?
- Do you interact with them often enough?
- Do you value and nurture your relationships as you should?
- Do you allow negative, harmful relationships to remain for far longer than you deserve?
Think deeply about these questions and take steps to ensure you have a social network that is compassionate, uplifting, and…healthy – healthy for your physical brain and body and healthy for your mental health and well-being.
People are powerful and in my new book, Resilient Me: How to Worry Less and Achieve More, I cover research that looks at how relationships can impact our mental and physical health and our resilience to life’s obstacles and challenges, and discuss what you need to do to ensure you are using people power to your advantage. People can be the source of our greatest pain and our deepest pleasure and they can help us heal, and live longer and happier. The more we evolve in a technologically advancing world, the more we will likely crave and recognise the value even just one human being holds for another.
Cook Maher A, Kielb S, Loyer E, Connelley M, Rademaker A, Mesulam M-M, et al. (2017) Psychological well-being in elderly adults with extraordinary episodic memory. PLoS ONE12(10): e0186413. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0186413