A problem shared is a problem halved, or so the saying goes.
The emotional benefits of confiding in a trusted loved one have long been known, with new research revealing that just feeling listened to boosts our brain health.
Scientists from NYU Langone Health analysed the social support networks of more than 2,000 people, average age 63.
Results – published in the journal JAMA Network Open – reveal "listener availability" was linked to greater cognitive resilience, defined as the brain's ability to function relative to any ageing or disease-related changes.
Read more: AI could diagnose dementia in one day
Having someone to confide in may even ease the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, with the research giving "concrete biological reasons why we should all seek good listeners and become better listeners ourselves".
"We think of cognitive resilience as a buffer to the effects of brain ageing and disease," said lead author Dr Joel Salinas.
"This study adds to growing evidence that people can take steps, either for themselves or the people they care about most, to increase the odds they'll slow down cognitive ageing or prevent the development of symptoms of Alzheimer's disease – something that is all the more important given we still don't have a cure".
Read more: Dementia set to triple worldwide by 2050
Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, an umbrella term for a loss of brain function. It is considered to be incurable, however, treatments can temporarily ease Alzheimer's symptoms.
To better understand the importance of our social support network, the NYU scientists analysed participants of the Framingham Heart Study, who self-reported their access to emotional help, including advice, love, affection and contact.
Cognitive resilience was measured according to a participant's total brain volume relative to their performance on neuropsychological assessments.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those with a lower brain volume tended to have reduced cognitive function.
Read more: Tooth loss raises dementia risk
Nevertheless, cognitive function was higher – relative to brain volume – in those with good listener availability.
"While there is still a lot we don't understand about the specific biological pathways between psychosocial factors like listener availability and brain health, this study gives clues about concrete, biological reasons why we should all seek good listeners and become better listeners ourselves," said Dr Salinas.
"Other forms of social support" – like our interactions, degree of love and affection, emotional help and access to contacts – were not linked to improved cognitive resilience.
Watch: Cognitive decline linked to fractures in women
Dementia generally affects people aged over 65. Nevertheless, younger individuals may also benefit from taking advantage of their social support.
The NYU scientists found that for every unit of decline in brain volume, the participants in their 40s or 50s with low listener availability had a cognitive age that was four years older than those with high listener availability.
"These four years can be incredibly precious," said Dr Salinas.
"Too often we think about how to protect our brain health when we're much older, after we've already lost a lot of time decades before to build and sustain brain-healthy habits, but today, right now, you can ask yourself if you truly have someone available to listen to you in a supportive way – and ask your loved ones the same.
"Taking that simple action sets the process in motion for you to ultimately have better odds of long-term brain health and the best quality of life you can have."
The scientists also hope doctors will ask patients about their social support network.
"Loneliness is one of the many symptoms of depression and has other health implications for patients," said Dr Salinas.
"These kinds of questions about a person's social relationships and feelings of loneliness can tell you a lot about a patient's broader social circumstances, their future health and how they're really doing outside of the clinic."
Watch: Housework boosts brain health