Active Mind

Having someone to talk to improves brain health

January 24, 2022

Having a good listener available when you need to talk could improve brain health and help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

Results of a recent study show that “supportive social interactions” increase our cognitive resilience – the brain’s ability to buffer against disease and recover from trauma. 

Alzheimer’s disease typically affects people over the age of 65, but the study found that people in their 40s and 50s who didn’t regularly have someone to talk to had a cognitive age four years older than those who did have a listener. 

Lead researcher Dr. Joel Salinas, of New York University Grossman School of Medicine, said: “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.

“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.”

What the researchers found

Researchers from New York University, Boston School of Medicine, Harvard and others used the US based Framingham Heart Study (FHS) to carry out the study. 

They analysed data from 2,171 people, with an average age of 63. The participants self-reported how often they were able to speak to someone who could listen, receive good advice, love and affection and emotional support from close contacts.

Using MRI scans and neuropsychological assessments, the scientists measured the participants’ brain volumes and levels of cognitive resilience. Lower brain volumes are associated with lower cognitive function, while higher brain volumes tend to indicate better function.  

Out of all the types of social support available to the participants, listening was the most important factor associated with higher cognitive resilience. 

Dr. Salinas said: “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.”

The researchers noted that more studies are needed to improve the biological understanding of how social interactions affect brain health. Dr. Salinas said: “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.”

Why keeping an active mind is important for good brain health

Having someone to talk to is only one aspect of keeping a healthy brain as you age. Keeping your mind active by doing activities like puzzles, playing chess, reading, cooking and gardening are all simple ways to keep your brain busy and build cognitive reserve.

Studies have shown that simple hobbies such as reading, playing puzzles or board games could delay Alzheimer’s by up to five years

For more tips on how to maintain a healthy brain, see our brain health pillar guides: