Want to Stay Sharp? Maintain Your Social Brain

We’ve all heard that engaging our minds with crossword puzzles and other intelligence games can keep our brains healthy, but it turns out that maintaining the relationships in our lives is just as important.

“We are social animals; it’s a fundamental aspect of being human,” said neurologist Dan Kaufer, MD, director of the UNC Memory Disorders Program. (Editor’s note: Dr. Kaufer died in 2020.) “During our lives, we acquire a number of different roles based on work and interactions with family and friends. These relationships define us. The more of those roles we maintain as we get older, the more we maintain our normal self and, in effect, our brain health.”

Dr. Kaufer was trained in neurology with a subspecialty focus in behavioral neurology and neuropsychiatry. He said the neurological (physical health) and psychiatric (mental health) parts of your brain are linked, and social behavior is a key indicator of brain health.

The trick is to stay social as you age, he said—maintaining old relationships and forming new ones.

Here’s a scene to illustrate the workout social interactions give our brains:

You’ve been invited to a party at a friend’s house. The gears in your mind start cranking before you’ve even set foot outside your home.

What do you wear? Can you take a date? Should you bring something? Who will be there? If so-and-so and what’s-his-name are coming, then there might be some tension because of that fight they had years ago about yada yada yada.

See? That’s a lot of thinking and problem-solving before you even get to the party. By the time you arrive at the party, your brain is fully engaged, Dr. Kaufer said.

“You’re taking stock of everyone who is there, trying to remember names, faces and relationships. Who should you talk to? Who should you avoid? What topics should you steer clear of when talking to them?” Dr. Kaufer said.

Research has clearly shown the positive effect of social interaction on mental health and physical health, and even its ability to lower your risk of death.

One of many examples: A study published in Nature Neuroscience showed that the amygdala, a brain region that helps regulate emotions, is more developed in people who have a broader and more complex social network. This raises an intriguing “chicken or egg” question regarding how social interactions may affect brain structure and function, according to Dr. Kaufer. But either way, this finding suggests that how much someone likes to naturally socialize is wired into his or her brain, and that maintaining this over the life span is an important aspect of brain health.

In addition, a report in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior described the benefits of having a social support group when it comes to your mental health. Having friends and family you can rely on when life gets tough helps you manage stress, which can help in other areas of your life. Some experts are concerned that an increasingly isolated society (people are less connected with family, have fewer children and don’t join as many community groups) could have implications for our collective brain health.

Plus, Dr. Kaufer added, social interaction can motivate healthier living in general.

“When people are around others, they want to present themselves in a positive way, which includes maintaining a good outward appearance by grooming and possibly staying fit. It may also mean tidying up their home before having company and doing cleaning they may not have done otherwise. The flip side to this is that showing less concern about one’s general appearance, personal hygiene or home cleanliness may be an early sign of depression or dementia.”

Here’s how you can increase your brain health through social interaction.

1. Remember your real-life social network.

We’re not talking about Facebook and Instagram. That kind of social interaction doesn’t count as much as direct personal interaction. What matters most are friends and family who form the ongoing relationships that keep you grounded in who you are.

“At the end of the day, we have to remember what makes us human,” Dr. Kaufer said. “It’s that we have relationships. We laugh, we cry, we share life experiences, good and bad. It’s these relationships that really define us throughout our lives.”

2. It’s about quality, not quantity.

Some people are always surrounded by other people. They’re predisposed to being around others and tend to have a long list of friends or family they interact with. But you don’t have to be one of those people to have a healthy brain.

“You don’t need to become a social butterfly,” Dr. Kaufer said. “For social interactions to make a difference in your brain health, we’re really just talking about one or two strong bonds with people that you can interact with regularly.”

3. Challenge yourself.

Dr. Kaufer said games like crossword puzzles exercise parts of the brain involved in language, but just doing those won’t help your overall brain health.

“If you’re going to do a puzzle, take a crack at it while you’re walking on the treadmill. Many people also find that socializing while walking or running can help provide motivation to exercise and may promote other positive activities such as healthy competition,” he said.

“Regular physical activity and social interaction are probably much more important to maintaining brain health than engaging in brain-training games.”

4. Hit the dance floor.

Dr. Kaufer’s best advice for a full-brain workout was “dance, dance, dance.”

“Dancing is physical and takes coordination,” he said. “You’re focusing on your body movements while trying to keep time with the music. If you’re dancing with others, you’re also connecting with people around you, processing their movements and emotions. And most of the time, dancing puts a smile on your face; it makes people happy.”

5. Pets count, too.

As people age, it can get more difficult to keep up relationships for multiple reasons. Some people have cognitive impairment or hearing loss, which makes interacting with others difficult. For people with those challenges, Dr. Kaufer often prescribed a pet.

“The power of pets as social companions should be noted,” Dr. Kaufer said. “Some of my patients who gradually lose the ability to communicate can become profoundly isolated. But a dog can be an incredibly helpful companion because it will love you whether or not you can talk.”

 Want to talk to a doctor about your brain health, or get a referral to a neurologist? Find a provider near you.

Editor’s note: Dan Kaufer, MD, died July 2, 2020. He was the founding director of the UNC Memory Disorders Program. Renowned for his research and treatment of memory disorders, Dr. Kaufer was deeply devoted to his patients and their families.