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Cognitive Health Research Says: We All Need Somebody to Lean On

By | September 29th, 2021

New research shows that people who have someone they can count on as a good listener have more resilient brains than people who go at it alone. 

Spending time with a friend or a loved one who simply listens about our day’s ups and downs can go a long way in easing angst and loneliness. But the benefits of these relationships may extend well beyond just making us feel better. New research shows that having a reliable listener in our lives is linked with greater cognitive resilience, or preserved cognitive function despite brain changes related to age or disease.

The study, published in JAMA Network Open, found that people who frequently had someone they could count on as a listener had better cognitive functioning than would be expected for their brain volumes. 

Previous studies have shown the link between social interactions and brain health. People who are lonely and socially isolated have higher odds of developing dementia. On the flipside, keeping the brain active by interacting with others is one among many lifestyle factors that could reduce this risk. But the recent study goes a step further, showing that having a good listener seems to be the key form of social support associated with cognitive resilience. 

According to Dr. Joel Salinas, the study’s lead author and assistant professor of neurology at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine, his team’s research highlights the broad health benefits of fostering relationships with supportive listeners, social connections that are reciprocal. 

“What this study shows is that not only does it make us feel better to have a good listener, but it also seems to help create a situation in the brain where [it] is able to sustain its raw horsepower over time,” Salinas told Being Patient. “That’s something any of us can cultivate in our [lives]: having a good listener readily available. Also, there’s an opportunity that doesn’t cost any money to be that good listener for people in our lives that we care about.” 

For the study, Salinas and colleagues collected data from more than 2,000 people without dementia or stroke in the long-running Framingham Study. The participants, aged 45 and older, reported the frequency of five types of social support in their lives: listening, advice, love and affection, emotional support and sufficient contact. They also underwent cognitive tests and magnetic resonance imaging scans.

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The researchers observed that having a listener available, or lack thereof, was closely linked with cognitive resilience, and this association was the strongest among participants younger than the age of 65. 

For every unit of decline in brain volume, people in their 40s and 50s with high “listener availability” (having someone they could count on as a listener most or all the time) had a cognitive age that was four years younger than those who reported low listener availability (having someone they could count on as a listener some, little or none of the time). 

Salinas said the next steps for the team involve zeroing in on the biological mechanisms behind the link between supportive listening and cognitive resilience. He and his colleagues also aim to better understand elements of listening and their relation to resilience, such as the frequency and quality of these interactions, and being able to relate to a listener. Learnings from the team’s research, he hopes, could shed light not only on the risk factors of brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, but also a path toward developing effective interventions of supportive listening. 

Experts say that the recent study’s findings need to be replicated in future research. Regardless, taking the time to listen to others can make a difference to their general wellbeing. Remaining present, validating a person’s thoughts and feelings, and building upon their points in conversation are all critical to being a good listener. 

As Salinas put it, “The key is being able to be willing to give them the space to share what’s going on in their life, without interruption [and] judgment, and then being able to relate that information back to them, to let them know that you’re not only listening, but you appreciate what they’re saying.

“A good listener can actually sound a little bit more like a good editor, where you’re asking questions to learn more about things that may be bothering them, or that aren’t clear, diving into things that they might have skirted by and letting them know that you’re attending to them.” 

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