How Supportive Social Networks Promote a Healthier Brain

Engaging with family and friends may protect the brain cells that affect memory and thinking skills.

You may feel happier and more relaxed when you’re out with friends or simply enjoying the company of a spouse or loved one. And along with boosting your mood, those good times may be providing some long-term benefits for your brain, too.

Research by Joel Salinas, MD, an investigator at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Brain Health, reveals that having a supportive social network is associated with higher levels of a protein that protects existing neurons and promotes the formation of new neural connections. It’s called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and people who are more socially isolated tend to have lower levels of this protective protein. These people tend to have greater risks for dementia and stroke, Dr. Salinas says.\

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW

Impaired vision and/or hearing can affect your social engagement, so be sure to get regular screenings and address any problems that keep you from participating fully in life.

Many communities have free or low-cost transportation options for older adults who no longer drive or who are otherwise limited in their mobility.

Positive social interactions boost mood, brain function and physcial health, while negative social interactions can increase stress, leading to a range of physical and psychological problems. Spend time with people who bring positive energy to your life.

Friends and family may stop seeking your company if you turn down repeated invitations to events or get-togethers. Making the time to engage with others is a valuable investment.

“There’s a lot of good data that show people who are more socially integrated have slower cognitive decline,” he explains. What isn’t so clear is exactly how social interaction boosts your BDNF levels and keeps your brain function healthier.

Isolation and Dementia Risk

There are several theories that attempt to explain the connection between social engagement and brain health. One is called the “cognitive reserve hypothesis,” and it reaffirms the idea that mentally stimulating activities—such as engaging with friends and family—helps you form more neural connections in the brain and therefore protects against cognitive decline.

Conversely, Dr. Salinas explains, a lack of engagement appears to have negative effects on neurons. Positron emission tomography (PET) scans that reveal the accumulation of amyloid plaque in the brain (a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease) have underscored this theory. “People who report being lonely have higher levels of amyloid in the brain,” Dr. Salinas says. “But it’s sort of a chicken and egg situation: Does isolation grow because of dementia or does feeling isolated lead to dementia?”

Nature of Relationships

Dr. Salinas points to two key types of close relationships. “There are those you maintain for companionship, someone to listen to you and share things with, and those who provide emotional support, someone to help walk you through the stressful times in your life,” he says. Likewise, you may be a close companion or the emotional support for one or many other people.

Dr. Salinas adds that it’s also helpful to understand the function of your various relationships. Some provide more social support, while others provide “instrumental support,” such as helping you with chores. Other people in your life may be especially helpful with informational support. These are the people you turn to for good advice, for example.

When examining the relationships in your own life, you may also find yourself playing the numbers game. How many close friends do you have? How many relatives do you interact with regularly? What about the other people in your orbit: neighbors, classmates, work colleagues, people in your dance class or tennis club? If having more social engagement is better than being isolated, should you always be looking to broaden your social network? “Bigger might be better,” Dr. Salinas says. “But I would focus on the quality of those relationships.”

He adds that when it comes to the type of social network that is ideal, some people are “guinea pigs” and others are “hamsters.” Guinea pigs, researchers have found, tend to thrive in larger, busier social groupings, while hamsters thrive in smaller groups. As you think about whether you’re a guinea pig or a hamster, also consider the nature of your relationships.

Social Network Pros and Cons

Having a large social network can be beneficial if the relationships are healthy and reciprocal. If you surround yourself with people who like to smoke and overeat, for example, you may also adopt those same behaviors. Or you may choose to be with people who smoke and overeat because that is what you do. In either case, a lot of social engagement might actually be bad for brain health. Of course, if you have friends who like to exercise and eat healthy food, you are more likely to share those same habits.

A wide social network may not always afford you health benefits for other reasons. Dr. Salinas notes, for instance, if you are an unhealthy person and your social connections are primarily caregivers, you may not enjoy the same protections and high BDNF levels as someone whose connections are in his or her life by choice rather than need.

Forging New Friendships

If you have decided that you’d like to be a little more guinea pig than hamster, and you want to bolster your social support system, there are countless ways to do that. Forging friendships later in life can be challenging, since school and work aren’t surrounding you with potential pals.

Dr. Salinas suggests reconnecting with old friends, whether it’s through social media platforms such as Facebook or the old-fashioned way with a lunch date, round of golf or some other outing. Other ways to increase social connections include:

  • Volunteering: Choose a place that involves plenty of human interaction.
  • Tutoring: Passing along your expertise to children or adult students can be very rewarding. Consider non-academic teaching too. If you make wooden canoes or paint with water colors, look to share your know-how.
  • Learning how to do something new: Taking classes to learn a new language, a musical instrument, genealogy, or other hobby may help stave off cognitive decline.

Dr. Salinas says it’s a pretty simple formula: social connections plus purpose equals better brain health.

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