Friends support us, humor us, educate us, infuriate us, calm us, challenge us, defend us and, at times, define us.
And, according to findings from a Northwestern University study published in the journal PLOS One, they can help us keep our brains healthier longer.
Dr. Emily Rogalski, Director of Neuroimaging at the Northwestern University Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center, has, for almost a decade, studied the brains of SuperAgers, a term for rare individuals over the age of 80 who have the cognitive function of a person decades younger.
Rogalski, whose work on Alzheimer’s treatment was previously featured on LiveBIG in March, found that SuperAgers possess a larger and more robust cortex than most, leaving them with heightened episodic memory and sustained high-level functioning.
What does this mean for those of us looking to retain our brain strength well into our autumn years? Is it just the luck of the draw as to who is a SuperAger and who isn’t?
In an effort to ascertain what factors may contribute to improved brain aging, the Northwestern team ran SuperAgers and average subjects through the 42-question Ryff Psychological Well-Being Scale, a test which analyzes six aspects of well-being: autonomy, positive relations with others, environmental mastery, personal growth, purpose in life and self-acceptance.
One of their findings was that in the category of positive relationships with others, the SuperAger group scored significantly higher than the control.
“You don’t have to be the life of the party, but this study supports the theory that maintaining strong social networks seems to be linked to slower cognitive decline,” said Rogalski, speaking with Northwestern Now.
Rogalski is quick to note that while strong friendships are one possible indicator of SuperAger status, they do not guarantee that outcome. The good news is that, unlike factors such as genetics, forming bonds with others is well within our control.
“It’s not as simple as saying if you have a strong social network, you’ll never get Alzheimer’s disease,” Rogalski said. “But if there is a list of healthy choices one can make, such as eating a certain diet and not smoking, maintaining strong social networks may be an important one on that list. None of these things by themselves guarantees you don’t get the disease, but they may still have health benefits.”