Having a Good Listener in Your Life May Be Key to Cognitive Resilience

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Having a Good Listener in Your Life May Be Key to Cognitive Resilience

 Jim Windell    

            The psychotherapist’s stock in trade is being a good listener. Many clients benefit from a therapist who is actively engaged in listening and making observations.

            And perhaps one of the secrets to a long and happy marital relationship is communication, which in large measure depends on both parties being good listeners.

            New research now suggests that having someone to listen to you when you need to talk is also associated with greater cognitive resilience.

           Researchers used one of the longest running and most closely monitored community-based cohorts in the U.S., the Framingham Heart Study (FHS), as the source of their study's 2,171 participants. The participants, who had an average age of 63, provided self-reports on the availability of supportive social interactions with at least one other person. These supportive social interactions included listening, good advice, love and affection, sufficient contact with people they're close with, and emotional support.

           Researchers led by Joel Salinas, M.D., the Lulu P. and David J. Levidow Assistant Professor of Neurology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, measured the participants' cognitive resilience, which was viewed as the relative effect of total cerebral brain volume on global cognition. The measurements were conducted using MRI scans and neuropsychological assessments taken as part of the FHS. In general, lower brain volumes tend to be associated with lower cognitive function, and in this study, researchers examined the modifying effect of individual forms of social support on the relationship between cerebral volume and cognitive performance.

           The findings of the study indicated that the cognitive function of individuals with greater availability of one specific form of social support was higher relative to their total cerebral volume. This one key form of social support was listener availability; it was highly associated with greater cognitive resilience.

           In effect, the study, which was published in the JAMA Network Open, found that simply 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. Cognitive resilience refers to your brain's ability to function better than would be expected for the amount of physical aging- or disease-related changes in the brain. Many neurologists think that cognitive resilience can be boosted by engaging in mentally stimulating activities, physical exercise, and having positive social interactions.

           “We think of cognitive resilience as a buffer to the effects of brain aging and disease,” said Joel Salinas, also a member of the Department of Neurology's Center for Cognitive Neurology at NYU. “This study adds to growing evidence that people can take steps, either for themselves or the people they care about most, to increase the odds they'll slow down cognitive aging or prevent the development of symptoms of Alzheimer's disease -- something that is all the more important given that we still don't have a cure for the disease.”

           Salinas pointed out that too often we think about how to protect our brain health when we're much older and after we've already lost a lot of time to build and sustain brain-healthy habits. “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,” Salinas said. “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.”

           Salinas, who was aided in the research by scientists from researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School, along with those from several other institutions, also recommends that physicians consider adding this question to the standard social history portion of a patient interview. That is, asking patients whether they have access to someone they can count on to listen to them when they need to talk.

           For psychologists, it is important to note that loneliness is one of the many symptoms of depression and has other health implications for clients. Asking questions about a person's social relationships and feelings of loneliness can tell a great deal about an individual’s broader social circumstances, their future health, and how they're really doing outside of the therapy session.

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Salinas, J. et al. (2021). Association of Social Support with Brain Volume and Cognition. JAMA Network Open; DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.21122

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