Why a Social Life Is the Key to Keeping Your Mind Sharp

Photo credit: Tom Werner - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tom Werner - Getty Images

You don’t need Freud or Bob Hoskins to remind you that it’s good to talk. Last year, the disruption to our social lives caused by Covid led to more than two-thirds of adults with mental health problems experiencing a deterioration, and the charity Mind warned that the atomisation of life in a pandemic could cause many who were previously well to develop conditions such as depression. For some illnesses, the vaccine isn’t a jab, but social connection.

A new study published in Jama Network Open spells out the importance of regular conversation to our long-term brain health. US scientists analysed MRI scans and self-reported data on the interactions of 2,171 adults over the age of 45. They found that those who answered positively to the question, "Can you count on anyone to listen to you when you need to talk?" were strongly associated with cognitive resilience, showing better-than-expected brain function. That means maintaining a network of people you feel comfortable opening up to promotes neurocognitive health in older age, which potentially reduces the effects of conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

According to a recent Men’s Health poll, as many as 42% of men have lost social confidence since the pandemic began. If that’s you, you’re not wrong to feel worried or anxious: drinking or eating out in some circumstances often does the reverse of helping out. But don’t neglect social interaction altogether. Make time to nourish your brain with a little more conversation – at the pub, at the gym or even just on Zoom.

Make a Video Call Less Awkward

With more of us WFH, the virtual hangout still has value. Try psychologist Robert Stewart’s top tips.

Leave the ‘Office’

Don’t call from your home desk. Change rooms, change seats, change your outfit – anything to switch you out of work mode.

Fancy a Drink?

Saying ‘shall we have a virtual beer?’ can feel less pressured than scheduling an in-depth chat. The beer is symbolic – non-alcoholic or otherwise.

Call Up Mid-Task

Often men meet with an objective: to do or watch something, rather than just talk. I know people who call friends while they’re cooking. It feels less intimate.

Ask for a Timeout

We need to be transparent about our needs, to have the courage to say to our partner or flatmate, ‘I need time by myself to make a call.’ It’s hard, but helpful.

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