Having a Social Circle is Key to Protecting the Aging Mind

Study that examines social networks finds having friends is good for the brain

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(COLUMBUS, Ohio) – Memory and cognitive function naturally decline as we age, but there are things that we can do to preserve our brain health. A new study by researchers at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center suggests that having a strong social circle may be one key to keeping the mind sharp in retirement.

 “There is a known correlation between having a strong social network and memory function, so in this study, we examined if social ties are actually causing those changes in cognition,” said Elizabeth Kirby, PhD, associate professor of psychology at The Ohio State University and lead author of the study. “Because this is very difficult to study in humans, we studied groups of mice to see how social interaction affected memory and their brains.”

Some of the mice that Kirby and her team studied were housed in pairs while others were housed in groups of seven with plenty of social opportunities. All the mice were what researchers describe as “post-retirement age,” when brain function typically begins to decline. Researchers tested the memory of the mice using a maze with one escape hatch. The paired mice used a serial search strategy every time they performed the experiment, looking in every hole in the maze until they found the escape hatch, while the mice with more social ties seemed to eventually recall the route to the escape hatch and go straight to it.

 “A good comparison in humans would be looking for your car in a large parking lot,” said Kirby. “The search method used by the paired mice would be like walking down every aisle of the parking lot until you stumbled upon your car, but the spatial recognition used by the group-housed mice would be like recalling where your car is parked and walking straight to it.”

 In addition to outperforming the couple mice in tests, the social mice also had benefits that could be seen in their brains. “The mice that had more friends had less inflammation in their brains. That’s a sign of a healthier brain in aging,” said Kirby.

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Dan Mertz plays cards on his patio with friends. He is preparing to retire and has plans to stay active in his community. A new study by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center found that having a strong social network may be one key to preserving memory and cognitive function as we age.

Elizabeth Kirby, PhD, of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center led a study that observed mice to examine how having a social network helps preserve memory and cognitive function in the aging brain.

Dan Mertz is preparing to retire after 30 years as an attorney. He’s looking forward to having time to reconnect with friends and family in retirement, which is good news, as a new study suggests that maintaining a strong social circle helps protect memory and cognitive function as we age.

Elizabeth Kirby, PhD, reviews brain images from a mouse. She led a study that found mice that were housed in groups and had plenty of social interaction had less inflammation and signs of cognitive erosion than mice who were housed in pairs, suggesting that maintaining a social network can protect brain health as we age.

A mouse completes a test in which it must find the one hole on a table with an escape hatch. A new study found that mice that were housed in groups and had more social interaction outperformed mice that were housed in pairs. The results suggest that maintaining social ties as we age may help preserve memory and brain function.