By Austin Perlmutter, MD
Healthy social bonds predict better general health, longer lifespan and better brain health.
Socializing may help keep our brains flexible and boost brain resilience
Loneliness and social disconnection are high, and social media, a "me-first" mentality and lack of local community may all be contributing
Social connection should be seen as a part of a daily brain health routine
In conversations around preventive brain health, we often focus on the role of diet, exercise and sleep. These are activities we can often improve in isolation, and they can be some of the easier levers to pull to generate a brain-healthier lifestyle. But there’s another critical factor that is increasingly shown to predict risk for multiple diseases, dying early and brain health: social connection. Here’s what the science says about social connections and brain health, and 5 simple ways to improve your social connections today.
The strength of our social connections change daily and over our lifetimes. We may fall out with old friends, meet new ones, create new families and reconnect with people from decades prior. We place (for good reason) tremendous value on our relationships, and it’s not surprising that one of the top regrets people express on their deathbed is wishing they stayed in touch with their friends. Research is also clear than more generally, our relationships predict our risk for developing diseases and dying early, as well as our brain health.
We now know that our time spent engaging in social interactions may directly modify our brains. For example, our social interactions may activate neural circuits, helping keep them flexible. It’s also reported that spending time in meaningful social interactions may help boost cognitive reserve and mental resilience as well as offset the known brain-damaging effects of excess psychological stress. These types of data help to explain correlations between lower risk of dementia and depression and more social engagement.
Despite the obvious significance of social connection for our health and happiness (and the rapid expansion of the global population and digital connectivity), we don’t seem all seem to be any less lonely. In one telling survey from 2018, it was reported that about 1/5 of American and UK adults reported they “often or always feel lonely, feel that they lack companionship, feel left out, or feel isolated from others.” A more recent survey of American adults found that 61% reported feeling lonely sometimes or always.
Why are we feeling so disconnected and lonely, despite our digital devices and all the people around us? Some want to pin it on social media or lack of neighborhood community, a me-first mentality or even lack of engagement with something like a consistent religious activity. All of these variables may be playing some part (there’s especially emerging data on the social media aspect).
What can we do about this today?
When it comes to fostering healthier social connection, it’s important to remember that this, like any other lifestyle habit, takes time to integrate, and is likely to come with some bumpier patches. Calling up a friend or family member to reconnect or starting a conversation with a stranger can be awkward and sometimes quite stressful. But a shift towards considering social interactions as a key aspect of health may help motivate us and offset some of the preliminary jitters. Though each of us is unique in our needs and desires when it comes to connecting meaningfully with others, here are a few simple tips that many can benefit from
1. Give a friend or family member a call, just to say hi and hear how they’re doing. If you’re lucky enough to live near or with someone meaningful to you, set aside a weekly time slot dedicated to deepening your relationship
2. Attend a local concert, art event or public social gathering. Yes, it’s often awkward at the start!
3. Look for local meet up groups based around areas of your interest. Photography, food, hiking and more are great ways to link up with people with similar thinking
4. Make a point of putting away your digital devices when interacting with people you want to bond with. Research shows that having a smartphone nearby may distract us and make it harder to connect.
5. Consider volunteerism. Not only is this a great way to meaningfully connect with others, but it’s independently linked to better health.
One thing to remember as you incorporate some of these tips: everyone is pretty awkward. Most of the time, people are more worried about how they appear than how you come across. Simply showing up, listening to others and engaging in conversation is a big win!