The next time you’re with a group of good friends, think about this fact: the longer you keep your friendships strong, the more they may be helping you stay mentally sharp and avoid cognitive decline. That’s the take-away from an ongoing study of seniors being conducted by Northwestern University and reported in this recent article on the website of Kaiser Health News. The title says it all: “Good Friends Might Be Your Best Brain Booster as You Age.”
The Kaiser article describes a 103-year-old Chicago woman named Edith, part of the Northwestern study, who remains extraordinarily active, outgoing and friendly. She greets new residents in her retirement facility and makes a point of remembering their names and saying hello every day. She talks regularly on the phone or face to face with friends who are also mentally active seniors. She remembers birthdays and even sends little gifts to friends who are unable to leave their homes. Edith describes herself as “a very friendly person.”
According to the Kaiser Health News article, “That may be one reason why this lively centenarian has an extraordinary memory for someone her age.” The Northwestern University study which has been underway for almost a decade is exploring what the Kaiser article calls “a notable link between brain health and positive relationships.” The subjects in the study are “men and women over age 80 whose memories are as good — or better — than people 20 to 30 years younger.” (Kaiser calls them “SuperAgers,” a term we’ve started hearing more and more frequently in the news sites we review.) Researchers survey the group regularly and put them through a battery of neuropsychological tests, brain scans and a neurological examination. There are presently 31 people involved as study subjects, all from the Chicago area.
This same research team, the Kaiser article reports, had earlier made some tantalizing discoveries about the brain physiology of seniors who stayed mentally sharp and physically active much longer than their peers. These scientists noted that healthier seniors had thicker cerebral cortexes and that their brains had the unusual ability to resist age-related atrophy. Researchers also noted that a portion of the brain associated with memory and attention span was healthier and larger in the study group. But the scientists suspected that physiology alone was not fully responsible for the differences in cognitive function between one senior and another. They began to look at the interpersonal lives of healthy seniors to see if more clues would surface.
While other studies have suggested that brain power is linked to having “purpose in life” or maintaining autonomy, the research from Northwestern discovered little difference in these criteria between so-called SuperAgers and their “normal” peers. But where the healthier seniors really stood out, the researchers found, was “in the degree to which they reported having satisfying, warm, trusting relationships.” Research has repeatedly indicated that social relationships, which are highly important to healthier seniors, might play a significant role in preserving their cognition. In other words, there appears to be a strong link between healthy relationships and a healthy brain, especially as we age.
“That finding,” reports the Kaiser article, “is consistent with other research linking positive relationships to a reduced risk of cognitive decline, mild cognitive impairment and dementia.” But now the challenge lies in determining how much of the attitude and life experiences of those healthy seniors can be transferred to others. Can someone who is in their 50s today, for example, change their attitude toward relationships and extend their cognitive health into their later years? That will be an interesting topic for further study.
The story of one man in the Kaiser article suggests that old dogs really can learn new tricks. Bill, age 86, told researchers that he “realized the value of becoming more demonstrative” about his feelings and emotions after retiring in 1999 from a sales and marketing position. “Men aren’t usually inclined to talk about their feelings, and I was a keep-things-inside kind of person,” he explained. “But opening up to other people is one of the things that I learned to do.” Bill helped launch a men’s group called Men Enjoying Leisure, which meets monthly to talk about topics men typically avoid such as divorce, illness, loneliness and difficulties with adult children. The group seems to have struck a nerve: they now have some 150 members and have spawned four similar groups in the Chicago suburbs.
And speaking of breaking down stereotypes, we love this quote from 103-year-old Edith. “Many old people, all they do is tell you the same story over and over,” she said. “And sometimes, all they do is complain and not show any interest in what you have to say. That’s terrible. You have to listen to what people have to say.” She sounds like someone who would be a joy to get to know!
So what’s the take-away for our AgingOptions listeners, readers and clients? We would suggest that as you think ahead and visualize what retirement will look like, don’t forget to think relationally. If you’re the kind of person who is blessed with strong friendships today, make it a point to keep them strong and vibrant while being open to developing new friendships as you age. If you’re less inclined to place a high value on friendships, this might be something for you to work on. It does seem as if the old phrase “use it or lose it” can be applied to our minds as well as our bodies.
While we’re talking about visualizing retirement, have you taken the time to join Rajiv Nagaich at an AgingOptions LifePlanning Seminar? If not, there are several dates coming up early in the New Year where you can attend one of these highly popular, information-packed sessions – and remember, there’s no cost or obligation. Discover for yourself how secure you can be in retirement when your legal, financial, medical, housing and family plans are all working together and reinforcing each other – something that’s only possible with an AgingOptions LifePlan. For seminar dates and times, click here to go to our Upcoming Events page where you can register online; or call our office during the week. We’ll look forward to meeting you soon.
Meanwhile, don’t forget to thank your friends for helping you keep your mind alive and strong. As we at AgingOptions like to say, “Age on!”
(originally reported at www.khn.com)