Friendships: Minerals for the Aging Brain

By on February 7, 2018

By Dr. John Medina–

You’d have a hard time finding someone more socially active— and intellectually lively—than wealthy heiress and arts patron Brooke Astor. By the year 2000, she was New York royalty, married to a man whose father actually died on the Titanic. Along with three of her closest friends—fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert, former opera singer Kitty Carlisle, and fashion designer Pauline Trigère—Brooke tore through a social schedule that required four changes of clothing a day. Lunch at a downtown café, then a board meeting at the Museum of Modern Art (she was a trustee), an evening concert at Carnegie, followed by a benefit dinner, ending with late drinks, returning home in a comet tail of paparazzi flashbulbs.                                     

Brooke kept a social schedule that could leave a twentysomething personal secretary exhausted. And did—which is in great contrast to the physical ages of the women in this smart, lively quartet. Kitty, the youngest of the bunch, turned ninety that year. Pauline was ninety- one; Eleanor, ninety-six. Brooke was ninety-eight years old.                                              

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Did their age, social activity, and intellectual vigor have anything to do with one another? The answer, to the acclaim of elderly partygoers everywhere, is yes. Social interactions are like vitamins and minerals for aging brains, with ridiculously powerful implications. Even socializing over the Internet provides benefits.                                       

The studies are anchored in the safe harbor of peer-reviewed research. The first set of studies established a solid correlation between social interactions and cognition. Researcher Bryan James, an epidemiologist with the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, assessed the typical cognitive function and social interactivity of 1,140 seniors without dementia. He scored their social interactivity, then measured their rate of global cognitive decline over a twelve-year period. For the group that socialized the most, the rate of cognitive decline was 70 percent less than for those who socialized the least. Other researchers focused on specific types of cognition and found virtually the same thing.              

If you have social interactions that are positive—whether deep or momentary, with one person or dozens— benefits accrue.                                           

How exactly does the buoyant power of socialization work? Two main ways: it reduces stress, which helps maintain not only the body’s general health but specific aspects of the immune system, and it’s a workout for the brain.                                                                               

Social interactions are good for you because they take so much energy to maintain, consistently giving your brain a bona fide workout. Case in point is a clip from the movie When Harry Met Sally. The scene is where Sally (Meg Ryan) asks Harry (Billy Crystal) to come over for some major-league consolation: Sally’s ex has decided to marry someone else. Through tears and sobs and gobs of tissues, Sally tells Harry, “All this time, I’ve been saying that he didn’t want to get married. But the truth is, he didn’t want to marry me.” Harry, bless him, attempts his best lifeboat impression, although by now Sally is nearly drowning in a cocktail of saltwater and snot. “I’m difficult!” she blubbers. Harry counters thoughtfully: “Challenging.” Sally sobs, “I’m too structured, I’m completely closed off!” Harry shrugs: “But in a good way.”                                             

With unexpurgated grief in Sally’s case and measured restraint for Harry, the amount of energy the two exude in this delightful scene is extraordinary. It illustrates something scientists have known for years: flesh-and-blood friendships take work. And that’s because social interactions take work. And by work, I mean in a biochemical, energy- expending kind of way. Some researchers believe social interactions are the most complex, energy-intensive jobs your brain can consciously perform. Every time it intermingles at a cocktail party or consoles a friend, the organ experiences the cognitive equivalent of an aerobic workout.                                                                                                                     

So what’s the secret to a good interaction for your brain? It’s a willingness to consistently take the other person’s point of view, actively seeking to understand a different perspective. You may agree with the other person or you may not, but the effort transforms casual conversation into meaningful brain food.

Regularly engage with people, and your brain will thank you.


DR. JOHN J. MEDINA, a developmental molecular biologist, has a lifelong fascination with how the mind reacts to and organizes information. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Brain Rules—a provocative book that takes on the way our schools and work environments are designed. He is also the author of Brain Rules for Baby, a must-read for parents and early-childhood educators. Now, in his new book Brain Rules for Aging Well, Medina shares the scientific facts about aging–and the prescription to age well. Medina is an affiliate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

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Friendships: Minerals for the Aging Brain