Shakespeare said, “The earth has music for those who listen.” That says a lot, but there are even more benefits to tuning in. Listening, researchers are discovering, can help keep a aging loved one’s brain healthy.
When an older adult has friends and family in their lives who really listen to them, a study reports, that person will be less likely to show signs of mental deterioration. Seniors 65 and older who say they have folks available when they need to talk something over, it found, exhibit signs of what is known as “cognitive resilience,” and that's a very good thing.
“We think of cognitive resilience as a buffer to the effects of brain aging and disease,” Joel Salinas, an assistant professor of neurology at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine and co-author of the study, said in a press release. People who exhibit cognitive resilience are better able to overcome the negative effects of stress on mental functioning. Rather than feeling paralyzed or fearful, they are able to wrestle with bad news, disappointments or loss. Having someone to talk to helps the brain comprehend what is going on.
That’s a big deal considering the CDC estimates nearly six million Americans suffer with some form of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Not having someone to listen to you can undermine aging brains. People who had someone available to hear them out avoided declines in brain volume and cognition.
Researchers surveyed nearly 2,200 adults with an average age of 63. The participants were asked about their social interactions, not only emotional support from those with whom they are close, but also how well people listened to them and whether they received love and affection and, or, valuable advice.
In order to calculate the subject’s cognitive resilience, the researchers conducted several neuropsychological assessments, including brain volume measurements based on MRI scans.
They found that without someone to listen to us, there can be serious negative effects on our brains. People who had someone available to hear them out avoided declines in brain volume and cognition. On the other hand, for every unit of decline in brain volume (which is a sign of reduced cognitive function) people in their 40’s and 50’s had a four-year cognitive decline.
“…[P]eople can take steps, either for themselves or the people they care about most, to increase the odds they’ll slow down cognitive aging or prevent the development of Alzheimer’s disease,” Salinas said. But listening is not as easy as it may seem. Research shows we only listen at around 25 percent efficiency.
Here are some tips from The Lost Art of Listening, to help you and your family members become better listeners:
- Step outside yourself and fully focus on the other person.
- Ask questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer.
- Unplug for just 3 minutes when a friend or family member wants to tell you something.
- Practice “responsive listening": Repeat what the other person is saying.
- Find something to agree on (even if you disagree).
The study appears in JAMA Network Open.