Happy senior man having coffee with friends at table in nursing home

Social connections are vital for older adults, as the interaction is linked to slower cognitive decline. A new study published last week in Alzheimer’s & Dementia examined different types of social connectedness and how they affect the brain’s structure.

The study evaluated 117 cognitively impaired and 59 unimpaired older adults. Researchers used MRIs to examine their brains’ volume.

Experts think two types of social networks can have cognitive benefits. Social bridging involves access to new ideas, activities and information; it can include meeting new people. Social bonding is when people have close, supportive relationships with people they know, like family. It provides security and purpose in life. 

Increased social bridging was associated with greater bilateral amygdala volume and insular thickness, as well as left frontal lobe thickness, putamen and thalamic volumes, the researchers found. More social bonding was linked with greater bilateral medial orbitofrontal and caudal anterior cingulate thickness, as well as right frontal lobe thickness, putamen and amygdala volumes.

What’s that all mean in terms of brain health? Social bridging may offer some protection against age-related cognitive impairment and neurodegeneration because it seems to protect parts of the brain needed for sensory processing. Social bonding may combat cognitive impairment by supporting stress reduction pathways, the report stated.

“The associations between social connectedness and brain structure vary depending on the types of social enrichment accessible through social networks, suggesting that psychosocial interventions could mitigate neurodegeneration,” the authors wrote. 

“Although these results indicate associations between social network characteristics and brain structure, it is difficult to distinguish whether social enrichment results in neurostructural changes or neurostructural changes drive the formation and maintenance of particular types of social connections given a cross-sectional study design,” the authors said. Future studies should look at the effects of social bridging and bonding on brain changes.