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Fun with Friends is Good for You: How Social Connections Keep the Brain Young

Can socializing with friends be as healthy as going to the gym? As far as brain health is concerned, the research says “yes.” Moreover, maintaining social connections can help a person reduce their risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Conversely, research has shown that social isolation and loneliness are as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

“People who report being lonely have a higher risk of developing dementia – to almost the same degree as genetics plays a role,” said Aaron Ritter, M.D., the Larkin Family Endowed Chair in Integrative Brain Health and director of the Memory & Cognitive Disorders Program at Hoag’s Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute. “It’s a remarkable correlation that underscores the importance of social connections to our brain health and overall well-being.”

“Other key factors for maintaining brain health and reducing the risk of dementia include eating well, getting a good night’s sleep and exercising,” Dr. Ritter said.

So, what advice does Dr. Ritter offer?

Go Big. “When it comes to social connections, research points to the benefits of quantity over quality. It’s important to have at least a few hours a week of good social interaction, and more is better,” Dr. Ritter said. “If you’re an extrovert, this shouldn’t be a problem. But introverted people should schedule regular social activity, whether it’s taking a yoga class, joining a book club or just talking with friends – make it part of your daily or weekly routine.”

Stock Up. We know that the more we use our brain, the bigger our cognitive reserve becomes over time. Just like playing an instrument or learning a new language, being socially active can build up our cognitive reserve and reduce our risk of dementia.

Start Today. “It’s never too late, but the earlier you start the more you improve your brain health,” Dr. Ritter said. “We now know that Alzheimer’s is a disease that fundamentally starts in middle-age or even earlier. Starting brain-healthy habits at a younger age can delay your risk of developing dementia for years.”

To learn more, listen to Dr. Ritter’s Empowered by Hoag podcast here. And then pick up the phone and call a friend. It will do your brain a lifetime of good.