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Social support can protect your brain health

Having a friend who is a good listener can be beneficial to your brain health, according to a new study. The experts report that social support helps to prevent cognitive decline despite brain aging, and even despite disease-related changes in the brain.

The researchers found that simply having someone available to listen most of the time is associated with greater cognitive resilience.

Dr. Joel Salinas, the study’s lead researcher, is a professor of Neurology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.

“We think of cognitive resilience as a buffer to the effects of brain aging and disease,” said Dr. Salinas.

“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.”

It is estimated that five million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. This progressive condition interferes with a person’s memory, language, and decision-making ability.

Dr. Salinas explained that while the disease usually affects an older population, the results of this study indicate that people younger than 65 would benefit from taking stock of their social support. 

The study revealed that for every unit of decline in brain volume, individuals in their 40s and 50s with low listener availability had a cognitive age that was four years older than those with high listener availability.

“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,” said Dr. Salinas. “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.”

Dr. Salinas also recommends that physicians consider asking patients whether they have access to someone they can count on to listen to them when they need to talk. 

“Loneliness is one of the many symptoms of depression, and has other health implications for patients. These kinds of questions about a person’s social relationships and feelings of loneliness can tell you a lot about a patient’s broader social circumstances, their future health, and how they’re really doing outside of the clinic.”

The study is published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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