Why Staying Connected Is Vital to Good Memory and Brain Health.
I just got back from a three-day seminar where I sat in a large room with a whole bunch of other people listening to a series of presentations.
As I was sitting there, I was asking myself a couple of questions. What is it that draws people to these types of events? And what is one of the key reasons for attending en masse? Because much of the information being presented is readily available in other forms such as books, articles and the Internet.
Much of the answer could be found in the breaks between talks, when the gathered throng would meet up and introduce themselves to other people, chat about the event, their learning, their purpose for being there and generally sharing information with each other. The noise level of the chattering voices (deafening!) demonstrated that there were a lot of people intent on communicating to their fellows. At the end of each break, the organisers were shepherding/dragging/encouraging people back to the room, having to break up conversations in order to allow the event to keep to its time schedule.
As much as I enjoy learning new things, it is the social engagement with others that I actually enjoy the most, forming new connections with other human beings.
Why is this important to having good brain health and better memory skills?
I think many of us understand that loneliness is not good for us. People on the whole are social beings and thrive on contact and interaction with others.
How vivid is that image of an older person living alone, with little or no social contact. Apart from the disadvantage of being socially isolated, that person is also seriously disadvantaged in terms of increased risk of physical and mental ill health and is likely to age faster and die earlier.
The incidence of mental illness including depression is more common in those living alone.
Other studies have also demonstrated that people on their own are less likely to be engaged in maintaining good cognitive function and have a higher risk of dementia. Less external stimulation means less engagement with what is happening in the rest of the world, less likelihood of expanding or learning new mental skills, or of remaining interested or curious about what other things are going on.
Having to use your brain in a social sense means you are using your memory to remember, you are controlling your emotions (both positively and negatively) and are being attentive and focussed.
Neuroscience has taught us in order to remain brain fit we need to be actively using all of our mental muscle.
Back in 2007 Prof Oscar Ybarra and colleagues released a paper, which looked to prove that a correlation existed between social engagement and better brain function. His study included 3600 people aged between 24 and 65 yrs. Having proved that, he then went on to do a second study using a group of 18 to 21 year olds, and demonstrated that social interaction
better cognitive performance.
In his study he had three groups of people. The first group were engaged in a discussion for 10 minutes. The second group performed brain-training activities (crossword puzzles/Sudoku) for 10 minutes. The third group sat and watched a 10 minute Seinfeld clip.
The groups were then tested on speed of processing information and working memory. The results showed that even after only a 10 minute exercise, the group involved in the discussion did far better in working memory tests than those who had watched the video clip. The brain-training group were a close second to the conversation group.
So talking and social interaction with your fellow human beings appears very important in being able to maintain good cognitive function, even more than doing the brain training programs. Although they are of course also recognised for contributing in a big way to our continuing good cognitive function.
It looks as if we have another good reason to turn off the TV.
What is the Concern for the Future of Reduced Social Contact?
It appears that the need for human beings to remain connected to each other is going to be of increasing importance for the following reasons.
The above study suggests that having better social skills means a likely better cognitive outcome. Which means that if our kids are taught good social skills from an earlier age then they are likely to perform better academically.
In the workplace it supports the ideas of encouraging employee interactivity as a way to help them work better.
But, our changing lifestyle means many more of us now choose to live alone. The family unit is being replaced by an increasing number of single person units. There has been an increase in the number of people choosing to work from home as solopreneurs, as virtual assistants, as online businesses, without actual contact with other staff or related personnel.
There are a rapidly increasing number of baby boomers reaching retirement who, either through choice, or divorce or death of their partner are likely to end up living alone.
Which to my mind means it is crucial that we all look to either maintain or increase our social networks, if we want to keep our brains working better and reduce the risk of losing our memory skills, our physical and our overall mental health.
Younger people living alone are perhaps more likely to continue to engage with other younger people, but watch out for the shy, the geeks or socially introverted.
For people living and working from home, it is going to be really important to actually interact with others, to have face to face meetings, to get out and engage with friends, to go to restaurants, café’s and other social gatherings, beyond standing in the check-out queue of the local supermarket.
For the elderly, physical infirmity can be a major issue making it harder to remain connected. There were a number of people I looked after as their general practitioner, and often I or the Silver chain nurse would be the only people they would see from week to week.
There are of course a number of other things to consider to remain socially connected such as:
• Joining community groups • Maintaining regular social contact with existing friends • Going out to social functions, clubs. • Travelling and going on holiday • Enrolling for courses at your local Tafe college or University • Being a volunteer for a charity or other community group • Having a dog that requires a walk outside.
Even the telephone can provide a means of at least speaking to another person, as can the newer social media channels of Facebook, MySpace and Skype.
So next time I am thinking I need to encourage our daughter to get off the phone/mobile/Facebook to get back to her studies, I shall have to remind myself that that social interaction is going to help her memory and test performance.
There is nothing that can replace the invaluable act of simply being with and interacting with another person every day to provide great mental exercise.
Ref: University of Michigan (2007, November 1). Ten Minutes Of Talking Improves Memory And Test Performance. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 23, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com¬ /releases/2007/10/071029172856.htm