We want to see ourselves as individuals, but we are members of communities. Through community, we can protect each other’s well-being–just by being together.
What exactly does the research say about community, social support, and staying sharp? And, how can you establish a robust support system in your own life? Learn more below.
An illustrative example of social support’s power: blue zones
Blue zones are areas in the world where individuals live the longest and maintain the most optimal health. Dan Buettner, founder and author, set out to look at these areas and answer the question, “Why do people in these areas live the longest?” What are the habits and privileges that make someone live longer? What are their lifestyles like overall?
Some of the health-promoting behaviors common in blue zones are more common in the modern Western world than others. For example, adequate sleep, moderate alcohol consumption, and regular movement.
However, one often overlooked component that influences health in a major way is our social bonds. In blue zones, people are said to have stronger community or social support. They have a support system with whom they share time and connect regularly.
Despite being talked about less as a determinant of health, this is not a new concept, and there’s heavy research to back it up. Most people in the United States could tell you that, yes, nutrition and physical activity can affect your health positively. We want to believe deeply that our health and success are within our individual control.
In contrast, positive connections with other people are something we frequently overlook.
How a social support system keeps you sharp
The correlations between social support, cognitive functioning, and longevity are extensive. Here are some of the things we know about the brain and social interaction based on research.
Social activities support cognitive function.
If you think about your happiest or most enjoyable memories, it’s likely that a good deal of them involve time spent with other people. Consequently, research is there to confirm that enjoyment has a positive effect on health outcomes across the board.
A study looking at adults aged 70 to 90 found that those who engaged in a higher number of enjoyable social interactions showed better cognitive function. This was true both on the date of socializing and the following day. So, keeping your social interactions regular and positive makes a big difference in cognition.
In addition to the impacts that these enjoyable social interactions may have on cognition, another study on those aged 60+ found that, even with other factors in mind, enjoyment of life and social connection correlate with better health and mobility outcomes.
The laughter that may come is a benefit.
Most of us would say that we like to laugh. It does more than simply make us happy, however. Laughter prompts the release of endorphins, decreases your stress hormones, and yes, it supports your memory, too.
An added bonus: Laughter is also good for your heart. If you worry about heart health or memory, as many of us do, especially those of us with a genetic predisposition to certain health conditions, work on stress reduction and spend time with people who make you laugh.
Watch a comedy show, movie, or live session with your support system, play a funny game, or simply spend time together – when you’re around uplifting people, the jokes will likely come!
Unexpected information and experiences stimulate the mind.
Again, if many of your most cherished memories from the past have to do with loved ones, it makes sense that it’s important to have a strong support system now to make new memories with.
Being around people means that you get to share stories and pieces of knowledge with one another. You get to talk through any worries that you have and come to a solution or epiphany together.
For as long as we live, we have the opportunity to accumulate new facts and share experiences. Many say that these are the things that keep us going, and it’s even better if we share.
Your connections help you use your memory for good.
Think about it. When you have positive people in your life, like friends and acquaintances that make you feel excited to see them, or beloved family members, you have quite a bit of information to remember.
When you interact with virtually anyone socially, you may want to remember birthdays, meetups, and other events. You might also want to remember helpful information from your own life to share when a friend or social connection is in need. That’s the very definition of peer support. When you have a support system, you want to be there for them, and they likely want to be there for you, too.
Not only does a support system give you things to remember about the other person, though. It also gives you opportunities to make new, happy memories and engage in activities that require other people. For example, certain games, like those competitive in nature, require more than one player. Regardless, it’s nice to share these moments with someone else.
Social connection can zap stress, protecting your brain.
We briefly touched on stress relief, but it’s impossible to get close to delivering a full scope of what social connection can do for brain health and cognition without talking about how vital stress management is for the mind.
Compared to other individuals of the same age, researchers demonstrates that those with higher levels of stress show more rapid cognitive decline.
If you want a healthy way to lower stress, social support is a fantastic option and a seemingly vital piece of the puzzle. Based on extensive studies that look at various demographics, we know that social connections – specifically, positive ones – mediate stress markers in both the mind and body.
Where can I find my support system?
Various factors might play into the status or existence of your current support system. Some people have had a strong, consistent support system for their entire lives, whereas this is far from the truth for others.
It could be that you moved far away from people you were formerly close to, that you had to cut ties with specific people, that you went through a divorce, have experienced significant loss, or something else.
Regardless of the past, what is true in the present is that you can grow your support system. Here are some places to find connections:
Local community centers
Your local community center is a great place to meet people of various backgrounds. Often, there are senior classes at community centers, which are also excellent for cognitive function. Some incorporate physical activity, and virtually all of them give you the opportunity to connect with others and meet new people.
In-person support groups
If you have a condition or a specific hardship, like social isolation, divorce, cancer or cancer survival, diabetes, depression, grief, and so on, there may be a support group in your area where people meet up together to talk and connect. This is a great way to meet people who not only have the potential to become friends that are a strong part of your support system but also who truly get what you undergo in life.
Mental Health America has a support group directory that you can find here: https://www.mhanational.org/find-support-groups.
Your doctor or local senior center may also have resources for social connection like local groups and regular meetups.
It’s true that remote support isn’t quite the same as time spent with others face-to-face. In a pinch, though, it’s an excellent way to reap the rewards of social connection safely and from wherever you are. You can try a peer support network where you can sign up and talk to someone quickly, or you could join an online support group. Because online support groups allow you to connect from virtually anywhere in many circumstances, this means that you can get even more specific about what you are looking for.
Other avenues to explore…
Other options to meet new people include but are not limited to classes that center on various topics, like cooking, meetups for people in your age group, such as a walking group or a group where people play games together, and apps or websites that seek to connect people of around the same age.
If you are interested in using technological interventions, another way you can use technology to your advantage, outside of meeting new people, are apps designed for seniors who want to maintain their memory or those simply designed to stimulate the brain in people of any age.
It’s safe to say that social support is deeply rewarding for those who wish to protect their mind and wellbeing. Reach out to people in your life, new and old, and don’t hesitate to expand your support system by trying fresh activities or putting yourself out there in new ways.