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Cognitive function improves in older adults with people who listen, offer support

The availability of social support can help older adults maintain cognitive function, a new study has found. Photo by Gundula Vogel/Pixabay
The availability of social support can help older adults maintain cognitive function, a new study has found. Photo by Gundula Vogel/Pixabay

Aug. 16 (UPI) -- Having someone available to listen and offer support to older adults helps stave off dementia, a study published Monday by JAMA Network Open found.

Adults age 65 and older who reported having friends and family in their lives who listen to them when they need to talk showed increased signs of "cognitive resilience," compared to peers who did not have this social support, the data showed.

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Cognitive resilience is a measure of the brain's ability to function better than would be expected for the amount of physical aging or disease-related changes to which it has been exposed, including Alzheimer's disease.

"We think of cognitive resilience as a buffer to the effects of brain aging and disease," study co-author Dr. Joel Salinas said in a press release.

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"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," said Salinas, an assistant professor of neurology at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine in New York City.

Nearly 10% of adults age 65 and older in the United States show signs of cognitive decline, and about 6 million of them have Alzheimer's disease or some form of dementia, the Alzheimer's Association estimates.

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Medications can help slow dementia progression, as can engaging in mentally stimulating activities, physical exercise and positive social interactions, research suggests.

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Alzheimer's is a progressive condition that interferes with memory, language, decision-making and the ability to live independently, typically in older adults. No cure exists for it or any form of dementia, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

The disease can occur in people younger than age 65, many of whom the researchers say would benefit from taking stock of their social support.

For this study, researchers surveyed nearly 2,200 adults with an average age of 63 on the availability of supportive social interactions, including listening, good advice, love and affection, sufficient contact with people to whom they are close and emotional support.

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Study participants' cognitive resilience was measured based on brain volume, using MRI scans, as well as several neuropsychological assessments.

The cognitive function of individuals with greater availability of one specific form of social support was higher relative to their total brain volume, the researchers said.

This key form of social support was listener availability and it was highly associated with greater cognitive resilience, they said.

For every unit of decline in brain volume, a common sign of reduced cognitive function, adults in their 40s and 50s with low listener availability had a cognitive age that was 4 years older than those with high listener availability, the data showed.

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Based on these findings, physicians should consider adding questions regarding social support to standard patient interviews, asking patients whether they have access to someone they can count on to listen to them when they need to talk, according to Salinas.

"Loneliness is one of the many symptoms of depression, and has other health implications for patients," Salinas said.

"These kinds of questions about a person's social relationships and feelings of loneliness can tell you a lot about a patient's broader social circumstances, their future health and how they're really doing outside of the clinic," he said.

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