Having ‘a good listener’ reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and slows down the rate at which the brain ages, a study suggests.
Adults who said they had someone they could talk to scored better in cognition tests than those who did not have a confidant.
Participants with a friend or family member they could count on also had brains that were four years younger than their counterparts.
It’s thought that deep and meaningful conversations keep the brain active, preventing the build-up of harmful deposits that cause Alzheimer’s.
Age is the number one risk factor for the disease but loneliness and a lack of mental stimulation in old age speeds up the condition.
New York University scientists looked at the brain cognitive function of more than 2,100 volunteers with an average age of 63.
They said that, although Alzheimer’s typically occurs in the elderly, the results apply to middle-aged and younger adults.
Having a ‘good listener’ among your friends and family can help prevent Alzheimer’s and slow down the rate at which the brain ages by up to four years, according to researchers
The researchers used MRI scans to measure cerebral brain volume – with lower volumes pointing to worse cognitive function. The results were published in the online journal JAMA Network Open.
People who scored best said they ‘simply had someone available most of all of the time whom you can count on to listen to you when you need to talk.’
Lead researcher Joel Salinas, a neurologist at NYU, said people should view the results as an opportunity to reach out and keep in touch with loved ones.
‘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.’
Amyloid plaques start to form as the walls of the blood vessels in the brain start to stiffen and lose their ability to get rid of toxins.
Some patients have weaker blood vessel walls – possibly due to their genes – and gradually, the toxins build up.
They create deposits called plaques which damage the surrounding cells and cause Alzheimer’s Disease, the most common form of dementia.
An estimated 850,000 people in Britain have dementia and one in three of us will develop the illness during our lifetime.
But drug companies have failed to find a cure despite millions being invested in research over the past few decades.
Without a ‘good listener’, brain function can start to decline in adults during their 40s and 50s to the point where their brains are four years ‘older’ than those with a good listener to hand, the study found.
Salinas added: ‘These four years can be incredibly precious. Too often we think about how to protect our brain health when we’re much older, after we’ve already lost a lot of time decades before 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.
‘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.’
The research recommends that doctors should look at the social history of patients to see if they people around them they can talk to.
As well as ageing the brain, the lack of such support can also lead to isolation and depression.
Salinas said: ‘Loneliness is one of the many symptoms of depression, and has other health implications for patients.
‘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.’
To look at brain function, the volunteers – part of a long term health study in the US – were assessed on the kind of contact they had with others and whether it included such factors as listening but also good advice, love and affection and emotional support.
The study added: ‘While there is still a lot that we don’t understand about the specific biological pathways between psychosocial factors like listener availability and brain health, this study gives clues about concrete, biological reasons why we should all seek good listeners and become better listeners ourselves.’