The benefits of creating a supportive social network go well beyond the usual healthy-habit suspects of exercising and sleeping well. Social relationships have been directly linked to everything from improved cardiovascular and immune health through a reduced stress response to improved psychological well-being and reduced dementia risk as we age. According to new research, one of the most important aspects of social support is being good at listening.
Recent research published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology explored the phenomenon of cognitive resilience as related to the presence of a reliable listener. A good listener can significantly increase a person’s score on a variety of cognitive tests beyond what neurologists would predict.
As such, it’s possible that having a good listener in your circle can function as a buffer against cognitive decline and soak up some of the typical effects of brain aging, says neurologist Joel Salinas, MD, MBA, lead researcher on the study and assistant professor of neurology at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine.
To measure cognitive resilience in the study, Dr. Salinas and his team examined two metrics in each person: This test measures brain volume (a major indicator of dementia symptomatology) and cognitive functioning in a way that Dr. Salinas describes as cross between a hard SAT and Mensa test, plus crossword puzzles all rolled into one several-hour round.” Basically, they wanted to get a sense of how well each individual understood language, processed visuals, and retained information, or global cognition, as Dr. Salinas refers to it.
When they compared the global cognition score with brain volume, they were able to determine which participants scored above the expected number for their respective brain age and, therefore, had greater cognitive resilience. Researchers reviewed questionnaires answered by participants regarding different aspects of their social support, including whether they had a good listener, received love and affection, were supported emotionally, and interacted with other people frequently. All in all, good listening skills were found to be the element of support most often present in cognitively resilient people.
“Based on the results, I would suggest creating conditions in which you have access to someone who listens to you most of the time.” -Dr. Joel Salinas
Specifically, we asked, ‘Can you be sure that someone will be there to listen to you when you need it?’ We asked that question on the survey to detect listening.'” responds Dr. Salinas. “If I were to write a prescription based on the results, I would create a situation in which people can say ‘most of the time,’ where they can talk to someone who will listen, due to the fact that this is where we saw the most impact,” he says.
Having a good listener nearby might prove to be an extra-helpful preventative measure against cognitive decline — not that other types of social support don’t have brain-health benefits. It actually starts earlier than you might think that good listener availability brings cognitive benefits.
The research found the strongest correlation between cognitive decline and a younger age: as young as forty to fifty. Professor Salinas advises surrounding yourself with good listeners—and becoming that good listener yourself—no matter your age. “The benefit will likely be cumulative,” he says. “As you might imagine starting an investment in your twenties and adding to it over time versus starting in your seventies; in the first case, you’re going to have a lot more money.”
As such, if you’re hoping to build on your cognitive resilience, it’s worth finding people who are readily available to listen when you have something to say-and remembering to pay them back.
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