The Secret To A Healthier Brain
The Australian Women's Weekly|March 2021
When it comes to maintaining brain health and warding off dementia, there are myriad things we’ve been told will help. But, says Dr Sanjay Gupta in this extract from his book Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age, one of the most crucial steps is also one of the most enjoyable – spending time with others.
Dr Sanjay Gupta

The paradox of our era is that we are hyperconnected through digital media yet increasingly drifting apart from each other and suffer from loneliness because we lack authentic connection. This absence of real connection is epidemic, and medicine is increasingly recognising it as having dire physical, mental and emotional consequences, especially among older adults.

People with fewer social connections have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation, and higher levels of stress hormones. In a 2016 study, isolation was found to increase the risk of heart disease by 29 per cent and stroke by 32 per cent.

Another analysis that pooled data from 70 studies and 3.4 million people found that individuals who were mostly on their own had a 30 per cent higher risk of dying in the next seven years, and that this effect was largest in middle age (younger than 65).

Loneliness accelerates cognitive decline in older adults. The data speaks to me. It tells me to pay attention to nurturing my relationships as much as I nurture my health through diet and exercise.

Picture this

Neuroimaging studies have been particularly revealing in this new area of brain science. A couple of investigations have been carried out by AARP Foundation Experience Corps, a program that links older adults with kids who are not reading at grade level yet. The program aims to be mutually beneficial; it helps older adults engage in the community as tutors, while children learn the skills they need to do well in school.

Remarkably, fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) showed that the adults in the program improved their cognition over a span of two years and even reversed declines in brain volume in regions vulnerable to dementia (e.g. the hippocampus).

Another study, the Synapse Project, also used fMRI in a randomised trial to compare the difference between putting one group of older adults through challenging activities together, such as quilting or digital photography, and another group that just socialised.

The results? fMRI analysis revealed that those who were engaged in the challenging activities gained improved cognition and brain function that were not seen in the socialising-only group.

Finally, the Rush University Memory and Aging Project has shown that those with larger social networks were better protected against the cognitive declines related to Alzheimer’s disease than the people with a smaller group of friends. Engaging socially in a group, particularly when centred around a challenging activity, seems to be the most protective.

The physical effect

The pain of loneliness has really captured my attention. A remarkable study led by Naomi Eisenberger, an associate professor of social psychology at UCLA, found that being excluded triggered activity in some of the same regions of the brain that register physical pain. Feelings of exclusion lead to feelings of loneliness.

This makes evolutionary sense because throughout our history, survival has been about social groups and companionship. Staying close to the tribe brought access to shelter, food, water, and protection. Separation from the group meant danger.

Loneliness doesn’t discriminate; it can affect people who are single and living alone as much as individuals surrounded by people and living in a family unit. And it affects city dwellers as much as people living in rural areas.

Connection for protection

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