Aging Today: Friends are important for your brain

By Bob Roth

Managing Partner of Cypress Homecare Solutions

In my best Seinfeld imitation, I’d like to divulge my most recent epiphany: As a vital organ, and the body’s control center, the human brain is in the midst of a PR crisis. I don’t get it. From this evolutionary masterpiece we have music, architecture, The Bill of Rights, and love. Why is everybody so enamored with the heart?  We love this little red symbolic representation, which by the way is not even the shape of the human heart. The brain does not even have an emoji on the iPhone. I heard it is coming in late 2017. See what I mean?

It’s the brain that is really super sexy as vital organs go. Here it goes, fellow Boomers – I hand you the keys to the castle. The best advice for keeping command central running at peak efficiency is revealed in the borrowed/reconfigured campaign slogan: “This is your brain. This is your brain on friends… Any questions?“

What does brain research tell us about social interactions? Not surprisingly, when it comes to cognitive health, socializing is really beneficial. The selection pressure that shaped our brains during our evolutionary history was likely driven largely by our ability to navigate social relationships in order to build cooperative and beneficial communities. It is a speculative and intriguing hypothesis.

Fossil records show an exponential increase in skull size due to a corresponding increase in brain size at a time when our ancestors started living in larger social groups. British researcher Robin Dunbar found the bigger the social group, the bigger the neocortex, an area of the brain which corresponds to language and other human characteristics.

It seems plausible that behaviors which formed parts of the brain are the same behaviors that keep our brain sharp throughout our lifetime. To me this compelling information is both brilliant and common sesnse at the same time. I am just gonna dance my way around all the neuroscience as I say, “keep the brain healthy by going back to the design specs.” Humans evolved as social, interactive members of a community as a response to solve problems in an unstable environment in almost constant motion. As it turns out, evolution does not favor sedentary bodies or minds.

What bathes the brain in all those happiness chemicals: a positive social environment in which you can regularly participate. This social environment should include a wide variety of people engaging in wholesome and enriching activities. Just so we are all on the same page, I am compelled to point out that “wholesome and enriching” is the secret sauce you need to take that great big bite out of life.

Grab a friend or two and start a walking club or a book club or a gardening club.  Go to concerts and cooking classes. If you don’t have lots of old friends, make some new friends. Just take the same advice you gave your kids. If you are going to an activity alone, sit down next the person who smiles back at you first. The key to all this socializing is the positive interaction you get. In other words, negative social interactions can produce stress hormones which have the opposite effect on cognitive health. So, if old what’s his name is wearing you down with an abundance of negativity, you may need to consider the consequence this has for your brain. Maybe that Dorothy Downer needs a worship service to get that attitude back in check. Offer to go along.

Now, I would be remiss if I did not emphatically state that what is good for the heart is also good for the head. Healthy diets, lots of movement, sufficient sleep, limited amount of alcohol, and tobacco restriction are essential. As we navigate the challenges of the changing world and our role in it as we age, rediscover the connectivity of companionship.