Mylea Charvat, Ph.D.

The Fifth Vital Sign

Dementia

How Social Interaction May Prevent Dementia

Talking with friends may boost your brain function as well as your mood.

Posted Apr 25, 2019

Marissa Price/Unsplash
Source: Marissa Price/Unsplash

Exercising your brain through healthy social interactions with other humans is very important. Similar to adequate sleep, a good diet, and regular exercise, social interaction has a wide scope of positive benefits that you may not have previously considered. 

Research shows that people who regularly engage in meaningful social interaction maintain their brain health better at all ages. One study conducted by the National Institute of Health determined that just 10 minutes of daily social interaction increases performance on cognitive assessments and can give an important cognitive edge as we age. 

Detect, Decode, and Interpret

Social situations and the development of relationships require our brains to engage multiple neural networks that support healthy day-to-day function and capability. Face-to-face social situations require us to think and respond quickly to ensure we detect, decode, and interpret the interaction so that we can give an appropriate response. This entails:

  • Listening and taking in information
  • Assigning a meaning to this information
  • Analyzing the information in the context of the broader conversation
  • Interpreting conscious/subconscious cues that come with interaction (i.e. body language, voice inflection, eye contact)
  • Igniting our working memory to effectively navigate through conversations
  • Monitoring impulse and inhibition controls to ensure appropriate interactions

The mental stimulation involved in face-to-face interactions plays a crucial role in staving off cognitive decline and can actually be a useful way to improve current cognition over time by seeking out meaningful human interactions that help us form bonds that support brain health and overall health. 

Social Connections & Health

Aside from “mental exercise,” social interactions facilitate the development and maintenance of our support system and network. As the Harvard Women’s Health Watch reported, “Dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.”

Those with large social networks are 26% less likely to develop dementia than those with small networks. Resilience to stress is greater among those with well-established social support networks.

As we age, maintaining meaningful interactions become especially important for reducing the risk of cognitive decline. A study conducted by Dr. Lisa Berkman of Harvard University found that individuals who were socially active experienced less decline in memory. In fact, those with the highest sociability reported half as much memory loss compared to those least social. Despite factoring in other demographics like age, gender, race, and health, the statistics remained unchanged.

Not all socializing is created equal

Not all social interactions have the same connection to cognitive health; therefore, distinguishing between types of social interactions are essential. Researchers have noted that just living with family members – merely cohabitating – does not decrease one’s likelihood of developing dementia because it does not provide the right type of social interaction to assure positive cognitive benefits.

To reap the potential benefits of social interactions, individuals must be engaged and participate in social activities outside the family, which is one of the strongest preventative measures against dementia. Social activities include sharing meals, conversations, playing games, attending lectures, and exercising, to name a few. Social engagement actually encourages the other healthy behaviors as previously mentioned.

What can I do? 

The Alzheimer’s Association advocates that sports, cultural activities, emotional support, and personal relationships, collectively appear to have a defensive effect against dementia.

Stimulating the mind and body to remain socially engaged include the following activities:

  • Staying active in the workplace 
  • Volunteering in community groups and causes
  • Joining bridge clubs, Tai Chi groups, dancing clubs, walking groups, book clubs, gardening groups, or other community social groups
  • Traveling and meeting new people and experiencing new cultures

Social skills can be an important litmus test to gauge health. Significant differences in demeanor can be indicative of both physical and mental health challenges. While most of us associate dementia with changes in memory – in fact, some of the first symptoms of dementia are social – sufferers become less attentive, less empathetic, and worse at emotion recognition and emotion regulation. Being aware of these warning signs can help family members and friends identify changes which may indicate the need for a cognitive assessment by their loved one’s physician. 

We hear a lot about artificial intelligence and its promise for our future.  In fact, one of the main keys to human health is the fundamental need humans have for connection with one another.  What can you do today to be more engaged with others and to enhance and improve your brain health and overall health?  

References

Wang, S. S. (2013, May 21). When social skills are a warning--behavior changes serve as an early signal of mental-health issues; starting treatment sooner. Wall Street Journal.

Diamond, M. (2008, Nov 21). Friends Make You Smart. AARP.

Glei, D. A., Landau, D. A., Goldman, N., Chuang, Y. L., Rodríguez, G., & Weinstein, M. (2005). Participating in social activities helps preserve cognitive function: an analysis of a longitudinal, population-based study of the elderly. International journal of epidemiology, 34(4), 864-871.

Ybarra, O., Burnstein, E., Winkielman, P., Keller, M. C., Manis, M., Chan, E., & Rodriguez, J. (2008). Mental exercising through simple socializing: Social interaction promotes general cognitive functioning. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(2), 248-259.

Ybarra, O., & Winkielman, P. (2012). On-line social interactions and executive functions. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 6.

Parker-Pope, T. (2008, June 4). Socializing Appears to Delay Memory Problems. The New York Times.

Ozbay, F., Johnson, D. C., Dimoulas, E., Morgan III, C. A., Charney, D., & Southwick, S. (2007). Social support and resilience to stress: from neurobiology to clinical practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 4(5), 35.