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Why Listening Matters: Friends Who Listen May Protect Our Cognitive Abilities

Published: August 18, 2021 | Last Updated: August 18, 2021 By | Reply Continue Reading
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New research highlights the importance of friends listening to each other

We all know we feel better when a good friend or family member is listening to our woes. In fact, when people think about the characteristics that make someone a good friend, they often mention that person’s ability to listen.

But new research suggests that having someone listening to you is more than a feel-good experience; it may also be protective of brain health. Specifically, a cross-sectional study found that this specific type of social support may help stave off cognitive decline as the brain ages.

In the August 16, 2021 journal JAMA Network Open, researchers conclude that having someone available—most or all of the time—whom you can count on to listen to you when you need to talk is associated with “greater cognitive resilience.” 

The researchers define cognitive resilience as a measure of the brain’s ability to function better than would be expected in light of physical aging or disease-related changes in the brain.

About the study

A research team, led by Joel Salinas, MD, the Lulu P. and David J. Levidow Assistant Professor of Neurology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and member of the Department of Neurology’s Center for Cognitive Neurology, used community-based data from the Framingham Heart Study. The sample includes 2,171 participants ages 45 and older, with an average age of 63.

Participants had previously self-reported information on the availability of supportive social interactions including listening, good advice, love and affection, sufficient contact with people they’re close with, and emotional support. 

Measures of “cognitive resilience” of the brain were derived from MRI scans and neuropsychological assessments that assessed the relationship between brain volume and cognition.

The findings

The researchers found that “listener availability” was the key form of social support associated with cognitive resilience. For every unit of decline in brain volume, individuals in their 40s and 50s with low listener availability had a cognitive age that was four years older than those with high listener availability. 

To summarize, they found evidence of less cognitive decline in individuals who had high listener availability. The authors didn’t find the same associations in adults 65 and older. Moreover, the same association with listening was not observed with other forms of social support.

“Too often we think about how to protect our brain health when we’re much older, after we’ve already lost a lot of time decades before to build and sustain brain-healthy habits,” says Dr. Salinas, in a press release announcing the study results. “But today, right now, you can ask yourself if you truly have someone available to listen to you in a supportive way, and ask your loved ones the same. Taking that simple action sets the process in motion for you to ultimately have better odds of long-term brain health and the best quality of life you can have.”

The team notes that while scientists still don’t understand the specific biological pathways between psychosocial factors (like listener availability) and improved or deteriorating brain health, the study offers some clues about the potential value of having people around you who listen and being a good listener yourself.

The paper outlines several limitations of the study and suggests that its findings need to be validated but in the interim, it seems as if there’s no harm in nurturing social supports, especially those with willingness and time to listen.

Do you have someone in your life whom you know is there to listen?

Previously on The Friendship Blog:

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Category: Research on Friendship

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