These days most of us are aware that there is a vital nexus between diet and exercise on the one hand and brain and overall body health on the other. We know that we should eat right and be physically active if we want to improve our odds of being disease-free and cognitively sharp in our later years. Yet there is another significant factor in the background. And the good news is, it’s pleasurable. Studies show that simply hanging out with friends is linked with better heart health and a lowered risk of depression and memory loss.
You Need to Get Out More Often
More people than ever live alone today, almost one-third of the US population. This means that people have to make an effort to socialize. Not doing so can carry big health consequences: research shows social isolation carries the same health risks as smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity, and that regular social interaction can improve your odds of survival by 50 percent.
And if you think all those hours on Facebook are a substitute for face-to-face socialization, think again. Although social media is great for making connections and keeping people up to date on your news, online interactions tend to be relatively quick and superficial. In-person conversations tend to have more depth and personal significance, and this is what the brain is hungry for. The challenge of interpreting important social cues such as body language, facial expressions, and vocal inflections also go missing online.
It’s a Mystery, But It Works
Although researchers don’t understand exactly why, the more socially-active people are, the lower their risk for cognitive decline and dementia. This is especially true if they have high-risk factors, such as high blood pressure or diabetes. It has been suggested that interaction with caring friends and family makes it more likely that an individual will seek health treatment when necessary, rather than putting it off. A rich social life also exercises the brain and fosters connections between neurons, which is vital to preventing cognitive decline and dementia. Social activity also inhibits chronic stress, a notorious destroyer of brain function.
Although studies show regular social interaction is good for health, not all socialization is the same. Negative and stressful relationships are not good for health. In fact, bad socialization can be worse than no socialization at all. Research shows that being in a strained, unsupportive marriage carries a higher risk of depression than being single. One study showed that people in stressful marriages healed from wounds more slowly than those in happy relationships. For reasons that we don’t fully understand yet, women seem to be more negatively impacted by a bad relationship than men.
It Takes Work, but is Worth It
Staying socially active doesn’t come naturally to everyone. If you’re interested in improving your health and preserving your brain function, here are some tips to incorporate regular social activity into your life:
- Be proactive: don’t wait for others to call or invite you out; pick up the phone and schedule time with friends.
- Volunteer your time: this can make a positive difference in other people’s lives and provide you with healthy social interaction.
- Work outside the home: if you don’t work or work at home, spending time working out of the home can expand your social life.
- Engage with special interest and hobby groups: use your local paper or online e-sources like meetup.com to find groups of people who like to do what you like to do.
- Take a class: learning new things not only provides healthy brain stimulation but also exposes you to more people with similar interests.