Listening to Your Friends Could Help Them Live Longer, Study Says

People receive support through many avenues: numbing out pain with reality television, putting on sneakers for a quick burst of endorphins, or just venting to a good friend. Studies show that social support is not only healthy, but it can also reduce your risk for Alzheimer's and related dementias. So next time your friend asks if they can vent or complain, really listen to them, because you might actually be helping them live longer.

In a new study published in the journal Jama Network Open, scientists discovered that surrounding yourself with friends and family who actively listen to you when you're venting can help to build cognitive resilience.

Cognitive resilience is a theoretical concept that describes peoples' ability to remain highly cognitive throughout aging. A low cognitive resilience is often associated with Alzheimer's and other related dementias, or diseases that impair brain function, thought processes, and memory.

It is estimated that more than 6 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's. The Alzheimer's Association projects that more than 12.7 million Americans 65 and older will have Alzheimer's by 2050.

Supportive listening leads to higher cognitive resilience
A new study shows that being surrounded by friends and loved ones who actively listen can help reduce your risk of Alzheimer's and related dementias. According to the Alzheimer's Association, more than 12.7 million Americans 65 and older will have Alzheimer's by 2050. Tatiana/Getty Images

The study asked 2,171 adults to self-report their levels of socialization based on five types: listening, advice, love-affection, emotional support and sufficient contact. The scientists then measured the participants' cognitive resilience using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

During their research, the scientists discovered participants with high levels of supportive listening as a form of support reported higher cognitive resilience. Supportive listening is the act of letting people tell stories or vent while being fully attentive and connected. Sometimes, people don't want advice or even a reply, they just need someone to listen to what they have to say; this is an example of supportive listening.

"A working Alzheimer Association research framework proposes that cognitive resilience–enhancing factors—by definition—modify the association between physical brain changes attributable to age or disease and cognitive performance," researchers wrote in the study.

One study done in 2019 concluded that social interaction could predict cognitive decline in individuals. The scientists looked at individual levels of beta-amyloid in the brain which is directly tied to cognitive decline and dementia. Scientists found that participants with high levels of beta-amyloid who did partake in high levels of social interaction had less cognitive decline than individuals with low levels of social interaction and high beta-amyloid levels.

Similarly, the new study showed that increased levels of social interaction led to neurogenesis, or the growth of new neurons. These new neurons increase synaptic plasticity which contributes to memory. The researchers concluded that the brain processes necessary for social interaction produce amino acids which play a large role in neural repair.

While it is important to have close relationships that allow for supportive social interactions, it's also important to be a good listener for your friends. Not only can it make both parties feel better, but it can also help keep your brains healthy and resilient.