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Your Brain Needs Friends, Too

By Cheryl Deep, MA at The Institute of Gerontology at Wayne State University, Detroit

You eat your veggies, exercise every day and complete the weekly crossword – all to keep your brain fighting fit. But you need one more healthy habit to maximize your brain’s long-term prospects, and it’s painless. Hang out with friends. That’s right, just devote a few hours each week to being with your buds. Friends matter to grey matter.

Research on thousands of people shows a strong link between social activity and improved physical and mental aging. Schmoozing is good for the brain. The University of Michigan’s Dr. Oscar Ybarra studied more than 5,000 young and old alike both here and in the Middle East. Across all age groups, folks who spoke on the phone or visited regularly with friends and family had fewer physical problems as they aged and maintained sharper mental function including memory.

Why should that matter? For one, spending time with other people is hugely stimulating. A barrage of new, unexpected information comes at us as we interact. The brain engages deeply in listening, analyzing body language, preparing comments, expressing emotion, reflecting on content, recalling information, and dozens of other small signals and responses that make up conversation. Not much can compare with the extent to which all the senses and various other parts of the brain are needed to socialize.

Social interaction boosts our mood, too, to protect us from depression. Second, socializing is pleasant. We feel good having others who care about us nearby. They acknowledge and validate us, give us purpose and meaning. We might be asked for advice or to solve a problem, which is flatters and affirms our value. “To some extent, the human mind evolved to deal with social problems, so it’s not surprising that exercising that aspect of our minds has downstream benefits,” Dr. Ybarra said. “In fact, it may be that our technical prowess depends on our social intelligence. In studies of primates and other mammals, the size of the brain has been correlated with the size of the social group the animals typically form.”

But just because research found that people with healthy brains tend to socialize more, we can’t assume that socializing keeps the brain healthy. A 2006 follow-up study by Dr. Sherry Willis and the National Institute on Aging wanted to confirm whether socializing improved cognitive abilities. Participants were assigned to a "social" group that took part in a group discussion, an "intellectual activities" group that solved puzzles together, and a control group that simply watched a television clip. Afterwards, all were tested on cognitive performance and the “social” group scored the highest, higher than the puzzle solvers. Hanging out with friends seems to improve brain function.

Contrary to popular belief, our social circle doesn’t have to get smaller as we age. Though some friends may be moving to new (often warm) locations, the opportunities to meet new people can expand. We have more time to invest in friendships now that the responsibilities of work and raising children are gone. Volunteer at the food bank, join that bridge club, visit the collectible cars exposition. Now is your chance to discover the friendly people in your community, church, senior center or residence.  And keep eating those veggies.

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