Shutterstock, used with permission
Source: Shutterstock, used with permission

Good friends do more than make life  satisfying. According to a new study, the unusual cognitive capacity of Super Agers may be related to strong social relationships. Super Agers are those whose cognitive ability is at least as good as that of people two decades younger 

Northwestern University's Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center, which focuses on biological processes in aging, reports that the cortex of people who have satisfying, high quality relationships is larger than their cognitively average, same-age peers: "You don't have to be the life of the party, but this study supports the theory that maintaining strong social networks seems linked to slower cognitive decline," said Emily Rogalski, the study's author. "It's not as simple as saying if you have a strong social network, you'll never get Alzheimer's," she notes, "but if there's a list of healthy choices one can make, this may be an important one on that list."

The study used a scale that measures six aspects of psychological well-being—environmental mastery, purpose in life, autonomy, personal growth, and self-acceptance, as well as positive relations with others. It compared thriving 80-year-olds to cognitively average same-age peers as well as people in their 50s or 60s. The most significant difference between Super Agers and the control group related to social relationships; positive, warm and trusting friendships. These may be the key to a slower decline in memory and cognitive functioning.

It's not always easy to make new friends, or even acquaintances, as the years go by. "I joined the senior center but it's one 'organ recital' after another," said a spry 75-year-old. "I finally figured out why men like younger women," said another: "It's because their stories are shorter." And loss is a central theme in discussions of how important friends are as we all get older. "I have one friend who can't see, one who can't hear, and one who can't walk, but between us, we manage quite well," laughed one of my favorite octogenarians. "Fortunately, I have young friends, too."

So do I. My mother's best friend Marilyn was 15 years her junior, and a few years ago, I reestablished connections with her daughter, who's almost two decades younger than me. Abby and I grew up in the same place, although when I left there, she was still a toddler. We kept track of each other through our mothers when they were alive, which was how I learned she had become a lawyer and lived on the west coast. When I read the obituary of a close relative of Abby's, my mother's ghost woke me up in the middle of the night and told me to write her a condolence note. Having learned not to ignore my mother's ghostly commands, I did so and she called me the next time she was in Seattle, around the time I was looking for a new roommate. So when Abby said her law firm wanted her to spend a few days a week in Seattle to service their clients, adding that she was tired of hotels, "Bube's BnB" was born.

As our mothers would have said, it was beshert, a Yiddish word for "meant to be." For two years, I looked forward to her visits. I loved cooking dinner for her, enjoyed our late-night talks about everything from books to politics, and appreciated the extra money. She kept me in touch with a generation I've largely missed—I'm at the leading edge of the baby boomers and her cohort brings up its trailing one.

She talked me into accompanying her on her early morning power walks and bought healthier snacks to go with the cocktails we enjoyed at the end of her workday, laughing at the vision of our mothers, wherever they are, doing the same thing: catching up on news, gossiping about people we both used to know, and enjoying the familiarity of the same cultural and emotional language. I introduced her to my pals, among which she found not only friends but a few new clients, too.

When Abby changed jobs, her visits fell off but we remain closely connected by phone and email and we know everything important about each other's lives. "Always have at least one friend who's much younger than you" has become my mantra. I've remained close to my daughter's best friend, who loves to go to concerts with me, and to my son 's buddies, who occasionally stop by when they're in the neighborhood.

And, just as they always used to, they tell me things they can't tell their own parents. Energized by relationships like these, I've reached out to other younger people, too, including a 25-year-old woman whose politics are radically different from my own. As I tell my peers, she gives me another reason to stick around—if I live long enough, maybe I'll change her mind.

References

Northwestern University, "Close friends linked to a sharper memory...slower cognitive decline." Science Daily, 1 November 2017.

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