You need friends to help your brain as you age

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Friendships are worth building. For your brain’s sake.

Having friends as you age helps your brain. Blue Zones reckons it ‘might be the best brain booster as you age’.

They say this after a nine-year study of ‘Super Agers’—individuals aged 80 and over whose memories are as good, or better than people 20 to 30 years younger.

Every couple of years, this group fills out surveys about their lives and have neuropsychological tests, brain scans and a neurological examination—as well as other evaluations.

‘When we started this project, we weren’t really sure we could find these individuals,’ said Emily Rogalski, an associate professor at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. However, they found 31 older men and women with ‘exceptional memories’.

103-year-old Edith Smith

Edith is one of their test subjects. ‘I’m a very friendly person’, is how she describes herself.

She’s known Johnetta for 70 years. Aged 101, Johnetta has Alzheimer’s disease.

‘I call her every day and just say “Hi, how are you doing”? She never knows, but she says hi back and I tease her’.

Katie’s 93. They met during a long teaching career. ‘Every day we have a good conversation. She’s still driving and lives in her own house, and she tells me what’s going on’.

She visits Rhea, 90, regularly—in a retirement facility. And Mary, 95, doesn’t leave her house anymore, ‘so I fix her a basket about once a month of jelly and little things I make and send it over by cab’.

The research

What the researchers found is that these Super Agers stood out in one area: ‘the degree to which they reported having satisfying, warm, trusting relationships’.

In other areas—such as having a purpose in life or retaining autonomy—they were much like their peers.

The study Rogalski was involved in summarised their report in this way: ‘Super Agers endorse higher levels of positive relations with others compared to their cognitively healthy but average-for-age same-age peers suggesting that this aspect of psychological well-being may be an important factor for exceptional cognitive aging’.

This was the defining factor.

A 2002 Swedish study had already made a dementia connection. That’s reflected in the study’s title: ‘Late-life engagement in social and leisure activities is associated with a decreased risk of dementia’.

It reported: ‘Results suggest that stimulating activity, either mentally or socially oriented, may protect against dementia’. It indicated ‘that both social interaction and intellectual stimulation may be relevant to preserving mental functioning in the elderly’.

The message? Social connections help with overall brain health.

Friendships are worth working on

That’s the point. And friendships are important even in difficult times.

Edith became a caregiver for her husband 15 years ago. He died in 2013. During that time she deliberately kept her social life going—as much as she could.

‘You can’t drop everything and expect to be able to pick it up. You can’t drop your friends and expect them to be there when you’re ready’.

Friendships are worth working on. For your brain’s sake.

Bruce Manners: the author of Retirement Ready?, Refusing to Retire, and founder of

Category: Ageing, Brain Health, Emotional Health

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