Think about the last time you had a phone call with a friend, a visit with family or a friendly chat with your neighbor. No doubt, these interactions left you feeling good. That’s because, as humans, we have a fundamental need to interact with other people. This is true whether you’re a social extrovert or more reserved introvert.
There is an abundance of research out there that supports the idea that having meaningful relationships, sharing joint activities, and engaging in enjoyable contacts with others contributes to our overall well-being. We just feel good when we connect with people.
What’s more, these human connections contribute to our brain’s health. In fact, new research shows that, as we age, those of us who are more plugged-in socially and have larger social networks also tend to function better cognitively.
The Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) looks at brain health as it relates to people’s ability to think and reason as they age, including such areas as memory, perception, and judgment. All of these factors together are often referred to as cognitive health, cognitive function or mental fitness. The GCBH recently reported on what adults age 50 and older can do both to maintain and to improve their brain health.
Here are the top 15 takeaways for keeping connected socially from this in-depth report, which was sponsored by AARP. Take a look at the list and see which suggestions you can check off of your list, and which ones may motivate you to pencil in some additional dates in your social calendar.
1. Focus on the positive! Continue to cultivate the relationships and social activities that you enjoy best.
2. Keep your social network close. Maintain a group of friends, family members and/or neighbors whom you can talk to. You want people in your life that create conversation beyond the small talk, like exchanging ideas, thoughts, concerns and practical matters, and who will also help or encourage you to do the same. The size of your social group doesn’t matter so much as the level of mutual caring among its members – you are important to them, and they are important to you.
3. Have a special someone, whether your spouse or a trusted friend who you can communicate with routinely (weekly is a good goal). You’ll want this relationship to be with someone who is a trustworthy and reliable confidante – someone you feel you can trust and count on.
4. If you are married, this can certainly benefit your cognitive health. But you should still consider cultivating other vital relationships. The research found that many individuals who have never married or are divorced or widowed had many other connections that provided support.
5. Try to speak every now and then (e.g., monthly) with relatives, friends and/or neighbors. You can communicate in person, or by phone, email or social media. How you get in touch matters less than the fact that you’re making a connection.
6. Look for opportunities to help others stay connected. Supporting people, whether informally or through organizations or volunteer opportunities, is proven to boost cognitive health. For example, you could pay a visit to a lonely neighbor or friend, go shipping with them, or try cooking together – anything to get them engaged with others.
7. Don’t forget about young people! As fun as it is to poke fun at Millennials, maintaining social connections with people of different ages, including younger people, is a valuable practice. Think about all the useful skills you could pass to a new generation. For instance, you could offer to teach a younger person a skill you already possess, like cooking, refinishing furniture, fly fishing, gardening, investing in the stock market – the sky’s the limit! Keep in touch with grandchildren or volunteer to help people at a local school or community center.
8. Try meeting new people when you’re out and about. This can happen as part of everyday life – during trips to the store or walks in the park – if you open yourself up to the opportunity.
9. Get active and social at the same time by challenging yourself to try new activities like clubs, courses, interest groups, political organizations, religious gatherings, or cooking classes.
10. If you find yourself feeling lonely, make a change by creating a new connection with someone or by seeking different opportunities to engage with other people.
11. If there are barriers for you to interact with people (such as difficulty getting around), ask someone for help and let that person assist you in making new connections.
12. If you find yourself isolated and have no one around who can help you engage socially, turn to professionals who can help. Some examples include telephone hotlines, drop-in centers and local religious leaders.
13. If you are already pretty active socially, shake it up by diversifying your activities. Think about joining or starting a group that doesn’t yet exist in your community, and that is centered around a common interest, such as a work out group or a gardening club.
These next two are for my introverts out there.
14. If you’re finding it hard to connect, just take baby steps towards connecting with others. There is power (and connection) in sharing a smile a day with someone – even if it’s a random stranger or the grocery store checkout clerk. Practice random acts of kindness, like holding a door for someone or asking how they’re doing.
15. Recreate previous connections you may have let go. Start by reaching out to neighbors or acquaintances whom you may not have spoken to in a long time. You could make a phone call, send a card, email, or visit their social media.
Anything you can do to stay socially connected is good for body and soul. It makes you feel good to share a moment with someone else, and research indicates that this type of connection could well slow cognitive decline. So, make it your intention to get out there and get social – however that looks for you.