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Close Friendships Linked to Sharper Memory

Satisfying social network may be one key to healthy aging

Friends Tina Fey and Amy Poehler pose for a portrait smiling

Elizabeth Weinberg/The New York Times/Redux

Having close friendships, such as the one shared by actresses Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, could be one key to a slower decline in cognitive function, according to a recent study. (Having funny friends probably doesn't hurt, either.)

Making memories with friends is fun. And now it appears that this pleasurable experience is also good for your memory.

A small study out of Northwestern University looked at a group of elderly people who included so-called SuperAgers — that is, individuals 80 and older with the cognitive abilities of people in their 50s or 60s. In general, the SuperAgers reported having more satisfying relationships than their “average” peers in the control group. The researchers concluded that maintaining positive and trusting friendships could be the key to a sharper memory and a slower decline in cognitive function as you age.

“You don’t have to be the life of the party, but this study supports the theory that maintaining strong social networks seems to be linked to slower cognitive decline,” senior author Emily Rogalski, an associate professor at Northwestern, said in a press release.

Participants were asked to complete a 42-item questionnaire about their health and psychological well-being. The SuperAgers’ median overall score in positive relations was 40, whereas the control group scored 36 — a significant difference, Rogalski said. Even so, she pointed out that maintaining a strong social network doesn’t ensure you’ll never get Alzheimer’s disease.

“But if there is a list of healthy choices one can make, such as eating a certain diet and not smoking, maintaining strong social networks may be an important one on that list,” Rogalski said. “None of these things by themselves guarantees you don’t get the disease, but they may still have health benefits.”

The results validate previous studies that have also linked positive relationships to a lower risk of cognitive decline.

Michigan State University study, published earlier this year, found that as we get older, our friends begin to have a greater impact on our health, both emotionally and physically, even more so than family.

“Keeping a few really good friends around can make a world of difference for our health and well-being,” William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, said in a press release. “So it’s smart to invest in the friendships that make you happiest.”

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