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Mind & Mood
3 ways to build brain-boosting social connections
- By Kelly Bilodeau, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch
You're careful about your diet. You exercise diligently and try to get enough sleep each night. But you may have forgotten to add one ingredient for a healthy body and brain to your list: a good social life.
How does social life engage your brain?
Research increasingly shows that strong social ties are crucial to your brain health. Socializing can stimulate attention and memory, and help to strengthen neural networks. You may just be laughing and talking, but your brain is hard at work. This increase in mental activity pays off over time.
Scientists have found that people with strong social ties are less likely to experience cognitive decline than people who spend most of their time alone. In fact, one large study, which included some 12,000 participants, suggests that when people are lonely, their risk of dementia rises by as much as 40%.
Feeling disconnected? Three ways to start re-engaging
As we get older it can be difficult to stay connected socially. Friendships may drift over the years, and family members are often consumed with their own lives. The pandemic has also made it more of a challenge to meet people in person. So, how can you re-engage?
Below are three tips to help get you started.
Rekindle old friendships. One of the simplest ways to find fulfilling relationships is to reconnect with good friends you've lost touch with over the years. Because you have a shared history, you can often pick up where you left off with less effort. Social media can be an easy way to find people from your past to re-establish a lapsed friendship. Or, scan your address book and reach out by phone or email.
Go for quality, not quantity. Not all relationships are created equal. Stressful interpersonal relationships can actually take a toll on your health. A 2021 Journal of the American Heart Association study found that women who reported high levels of social strain were more likely to experience serious heart problems over the course of 15 years than those who did not. While this study didn't look specifically at brain health, cardiovascular problems and cognitive decline share many of the same risk factors. Other studies have linked turbulent relationships with other physical or mental health problems. So it's better to invest your time into a handful of relationships that relax and fulfill you, rather than trying to expand your social group by including people who leave you feeling drained.
Consider a range of ways to connect. If you can't get out, use other strategies to connect with friends and family. While some older adults are hesitant to embrace electronic tools, they can help you stay connected even when you don't see friends or family in person. Video call a friend on a smartphone or send loved ones an email. It might not be exactly the same as a face-to-face conversation, but it's a substitute that can help when in-person visits aren't possible. Many libraries and communities offer free or low-cost social opportunities to meet up online, such as book groups, town-wide discussions, and creative courses. A local library or senior center may steer you to a range of resources like these.
Ultimately, the more open you are to new experiences and new people, the more likely it is that you will make connections with others that can help you maintain good health well into the future.
About the Author
Kelly Bilodeau, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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