We love our friends, we’d do anything for them. From driving their drunk asses home in the dead of night to meticulously planning the perfect surprise birthday party — not an easy feat in the Zoom era. But as a new study suggests, simply listening may just be the best thing we can do for them in the long run.
In a recent study published in the Jama Network Open journal, researchers discovered that surrounding ourselves with people who actively listen to us when we’re talking and venting can actually help to build cognitive resilience.
Cognitive resilience describes the capacity to overcome the negative effects of setbacks and associated stress on cognitive function or performance. A low cognitive resilience is often associated with Alzheimer's and other related dementias, or diseases that impair brain function and memory retention.
The study asked 2,171 adults to document their levels of socialisation based on five types: listening, advice, love-affection, emotional support and sufficient contact. The researchers then measured the participants' cognitive resilience using a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine. What the scientists found was that participants with high levels of supportive listening as a form of support received, reported higher cognitive resilience.
"A working Alzheimer Association research framework proposes that cognitive resilience–enhancing factors — by definition — modify the association between physical brain changes attributable to age or disease and cognitive performance," reported the study.
So what is supportive listening then? Well, it’s similar to active listening, but does have some differences. Where active listening encourages people to look for meaning in what is being communicated, supportive listening requires the listener to simply be receptive to what is being said, and responding to the emotions presented, instead of say, offering advice or solutions. Not only can this help alleviate some of the emotional labour of the listener, but as the study suggests, it can help your friends to feel more supported. is the act of letting people tell stories or vent while being fully attentive and connected. And after all, sometimes when life throws us curveballs, we just need to vent to our friends, free of quick fixes.
Many have suggested preventative methods to combat Alzheimer’s, from specific diets to brain exercises, but it’s unique for research to point towards external factors such as the nature of friendships.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting up to 70% of all people with dementia. But though it’s prolific, with three in 10 Australians over the age of 85 living with the condition according to Dementia Australia, there’s still so much we don’t know about Alzheimer’s and no cure. Its main symptom is memory loss, but it can also manifest in deteriorating social skills, slowness and emotional unpredictability.
A 2019 study has also concluded that social interaction could play a major role in cognitive decline in individuals, with participants susceptible to dementia with higher levels of social interaction experiencing less cognitive decline than individuals with low levels of social interaction.
Similarly, this new study has shown that the brain processes necessary for social interaction produce amino acids which play a large role in neural repair and the functionality of our central nervous system.
There’s been plenty of research suggesting our pull to form close relationships with others is evolutionary, but the importance of supportive listening, especially in hard times like these, cannot be overstated. Not only can it promise cognitive benefits long-term, but also establishes more meaningful relationships that enable us to feel heard and understood.
For more information about Alzheimer's Diseasse, you can contact the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500.