You need to thank you friends and family for more than just the memories they create with you -- spending time with them helps you keep the memories you already have too.

As we age, some loss of memory seems inevitable. You can influence how quickly your memory declined to exercising your brain with mental fitness activities and brain training games and programs. You can also protect your memory by staying in touch with friends and family.

Friends and Families Protect Memory

The more connected a person is, the slower the memory decline. What that means is that having many relationships and maintaining those relationships as you age is a great way to keep your brain young. A 6-year study of more than 16,000 Americans aged 50 and older examine memory loss, aging and social connections. Researchers tested memory by how accurately the subjects recalled a 10 word list immediately after seeing it and after some time had passed. The average score declined by one point over the six years of the study.

Marriage, Volunteering and Contact With People

Research participants were also asked about whether they were married, if they volunteered, and how often they had contact with their neighbors, children and family members. Those with more social interactions have slower rates of memory decline over the 6 year period.

Why Relationships and Memory are Linked

The "why" question behind research studies is always tough. There are a number of reasons that memory and social connections/relationships are linked. To get to the "why" question you have to consider other reasons that could explain the association between social connections and memory. Here are some examples that could explain the link:

  • A person who is "age well" may have more energy to dedicate to keeping up with friends and family.

  • A person with chronic illness may have trouble also staying connected and participating in activities such as volunteering.

  • People who are more socially connected may have personality traits (like being an extrovert) that help them get better medical care by asking more questions and seeking out help.

  • These are just examples of other reasons that may explain at least a part of the link between memory and relationships; but I think there is something that links brain health to social interactions if, for no other reason, that social relationships are complicated. Just think, if crosswords or memory games can improve health because they give the brain a "workout" how much more complicated are our dealings with people. Relationships provide emotional, contextual, communication and a great deal of other stimulation to the brain. These complex interactions of people with their different agendas, emotions, experiences and reaction must be something of an ultra-marathon for the brain.

    Maybe the best thing for mental fitness would be to put down the puzzle book, turn off the TV and go out and find some people to interact with.

    Relationships are an essential part of health. Isolation and loneliness create responses in the body similar to those of stress. The body does not function as well as when we are connected to other people. Invest time with family and friends not only for happiness, but for physical health too.

    Source(s): Karen A. Ertel, ScD, M. Maria Glymour, ScD and Lisa F. Berkman, PhD. Effects of Social Integration on Preserving Memory Function in a Nationally Representative US Elderly Population. July 2008, Vol 98, No. 7 | American Journal of Public Health 1215-1220.

    Relationships Help Your Immune System

    Researchers recruited a healthy group of nurses under the age 65 and tested their blood's immune function in correlation with their attachment style in the study. Women with an insecure attachment style had lower immune activity and were more prone to some illnesses. While the link between attachment style and immune function is new, insecure relationships can likely reduce the effectiveness of the immune system through increased stress.

    Perceived Usefulness to Friends and Families is Important for Health

    The MacArthur Study of Successful Aging asked adults aged 70 to 79 how they rate their own usefulness to family and friends. After 7 years, these same people were examined for mortality and other health data. Researchers learned that people who rated their own usefulness high were less likely to suffer from chronic illness or mortality. These findings held true after gender, health, lifestyle and other factors were considered.

    Loneliness and the risk of Alzheimer's disease was studied in 823 senior citizens in Chicago. Each person rated their level of loneliness each year for five years. The higher the loneliness rating, the more likely the person would develop cognitive problems during the study. The loneliest 10 percent were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's disease. All results were controlled for measures of actual social contact. This means that what matters is whether a person feels lonely or not, regardless of what kinds of connections he or she has with other people.

    Sources: Attachment Security and Immunity in Healthy Women; Angelo Picardi, MD, Francesca Battisti, MD, Lorenzo Tarsitani, MD, Maurizio Baldassari, MD, Alfredo Copertaro, MD, Eugenio Mocchegiani, MD and Massimo Biondi, MD; Psychosomatic Medicine 69:40-46 (2007). Feelings of Usefulness to Others, Disability, and Mortality in Older Adults: The MacArthur Study of Successful Aging; Tara L. Gruenewald, Arun S. Karlamangla, Gail A. Greendale, Burton H. Singer and Teresa E. Seeman; The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 62:P28-P37 (2007).) Loneliness and Risk of Alzheimer Disease; Robert S. Wilson, PhD; Kristin R. Krueger, PhD; Steven E. Arnold, MD; Julie A. Schneider, MD; Jeremiah F. Kelly, MD; Lisa L. Barnes, PhD; Yuxiao Tang, PhD; David A. Bennett, MD; Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2007; 64:234-240.