Image of Joel Salinas, M.D., MBA
Joel Salinas, M.D., MBA; Photo credit: NYU Langone Health

Older adults who have the regular support from active listeners are more likely to have cognitive functioning that contradicts evidence of dementia-related brain changes, a new study finds.

Investigators followed health outcomes for more than 2,000 adults in a large population study. None had dementia, stroke or other neurological conditions at the outset.

During the multi-year study, participants underwent brain magnetic resonance imaging and cognitive testing. The goal was to examine any links between forms of social support and cognitive resilience, which refers to the capacity to retain cognitive processes despite age- and disease-related brain changes.

The results not only reaffirmed that general social support has neurocognitive benefits but provided additional evidence of a link between dementia risk and one type of social support: supportive listening. Participants who regularly interacted with good listeners were less likely to have cognitive scores that matched the decline that would be expected from the results of their brain imaging, reported Joel Salinas, M.D., MBA, of New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine.

The association was particularly notable among study participants younger than 65 years who rarely had supportive listeners to engage with, they noted. In this cohort, lower brain volume — one sign of an aging brain —was strongly associated with relatively poor cognitive performance.

The researchers did not observe any link between cognitive resilience and the other types of social support, such as advice, love and affection, emotional support and sufficient contact, Salinas and colleagues noted. 

It remains unknown whether efforts to ensure that older adults have access to supportive listeners might delay the clinical onset of Alzheimer’s and related dementias, the authors said. The results of the study, however, suggest that older adults may benefit when healthcare providers make this form of support a goal for their patients, they concluded.

The study was published in JAMA Network Open.