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Social Connections May Support Cognitive Function

Studies suggest older adults who are more socially active tend to have better cognitive function than isolated adults


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From the beginning of life, the healthy brain relies on relationships. “We would not survive without social interaction,” says Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity at Stanford University. “We are hardwired to form attachments and to be engaged with others.”

Getting together with friends or family — for activities like playing cards, eating out, discussing books or attending religious services — seems to protect cognitive function. And although the research doesn’t prove that nurturing relationships cause a healthy brain, Carstensen says, the link is pretty compelling.

Social connection — and the lack of it — is a focus of a 2023 health advisory from the U.S. surgeon general, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.” The advisory points to research showing that social connections and engagement may reduce the risk of dementia and are associated with better brain function. In a 2022 report in Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, for instance, greater social participation and memberships in social clubs were associated with a lower risk of dementia among 7,917 men and women 50 and older.  
The size of your social network may make a difference, too. In a study of 2,249 women age 78 and older, those with large social networks were 26 percent less likely to develop dementia than those with smaller networks, according to a 2008 report in the American Journal of Public Health. For people who have dementia, social connection and activity may offer cognitive benefits, too, evidence suggests.

Researchers attribute these brain benefits to the rush of neurotransmitters released when humans are in the company of others. “Our best guess is that the brain is getting more oxytocin [the “bonding hormone”], dopamine and serotonin,” says Lou Cozolino, a psychologist and professor of psychology at Pepperdine University. “The activation of all those things increases the sense of well-being and decreases stress.”

Importantly, these brain chemicals serve to counteract the damaging effects of hormones such as cortisol, which are released when people are under unusual stress. “The lower the level of stress, the lower the cortisol there is,” says Cozolino. With lower cortisol levels, he says, dendrites — the branching extensions of neurons or nerve cells — grow and are able to forge robust connections between different regions of the brain. That improves all-over brain function.

It’s not always easy to stay socially engaged. Older adult lives aren’t necessarily geared toward fostering meaningful contact with others. But, Cozolino says, “It’s important for people who are getting older to remain involved with their kids and grandkids and their communities.” Contributing to the “tribe,” he says, feels good and keeps the mind strong.

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