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Science and Research

Aging Well: The Value of Friendship

Research Continues to Look at SuperAgers

Thinking about calling your friend? It could be good for your health. According to a Northwestern Medicine study, friendship could be linked to to a slower decline in memory and cognitive functioning.

What It Means to Be a SuperAger

Neuroscientist Emily Rogalski, PhD, leads the SuperAging study at the Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center (CNADC) at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. SuperAgers — those who are 80 and older who have cognitive ability at least as good as people in their 50s or 60s — are an integral part of these learnings.

Recent Findings and the Link to Relationships

In this study, participants completed a questionnaire used to measure their psychological well-being. SuperAgers reported having more satisfying, high-quality relationships compared to their cognitively average, same-age peers. In fact, SuperAgers had a median overall score of 40 in positive relationships with others while the control group scored 36 — a significant difference, Dr. Rogalski says.

“We understand there are a good number of consequences of loneliness and social isolation for those with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. This study is consistent with that idea,” says Dr. Rogalski. “It’s a beginning, initial study that considers the psychological well-being of SuperAgers compared to average agers.”

There is still much to be understood. For example, there is not concrete evidence to support whether the benefits apply equally to those with larger social networks or small networks of close friendships. “We do have an initial clue that SuperAgers, on average, have strong relationships and the impression of a strong sense of closeness with others,” says Dr. Rogalski.

This study signifies the importance of social engagement and maintaining strong, positive relationships as you age. That said, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. “The type of social network for one person might not be optimal for another,” says Dr. Rogalski.

Looking Ahead

As Baby Boomers age, there is an emphasis on the need for continued research to better understand the aging brain. Other research studies have reported a decline in social networks in people with Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment, and previous literature has shown psychological well-being in older age to be associated with reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s dementia.

“Alzheimer’s disease is incredibly complex, so what we are doing here is looking at it from a different vantage point. We’re trying to understand how their brain function differs from average agers,” says Dr. Rogalski. “When I think about how myself or my parents want to age, they want those later years to be active, rewarding years. SuperAgers provide hope and realign expectations to what is possible.”

See other habits SuperAgers tend to have and what healthy lifestyle changes you can adopt to protect yourself from memory loss.