Loneliness is Hurting My Cognitive Health

If I were forced to list the most prominent challenge I’ve faced throughout my life, it’s most likely loneliness. The feeling that I don’t have any close friends who share common interests, goals or mindsets with me. Now I understand everyone is incredibly unique and I’ve forced the problem onto myself but my combination of less popular preferences and prioritizes have made it difficult. Preferring exercise over video games, documentaries over movies and healthy restaurants over bars isn’t popular. Prioritizing my workout sessions over happy hours, education over friends and work over social gatherings hasn’t left me many opportunities for developing a strong social network. I have done this to myself but what I’ve realized while combing through tons of research on brain health is that social health, very well could be the strongest influence to cognitive health. And, by prioritizing my physical health above all else, it may be hurting my cognitive health in the short and long term. Let me explain.

Benefits of Being Social

A recent study was performed on three groups of participants. Group one would spend time socializing. Group two would spend time doing intellectual activities like puzzles. And group three would spend time watching television. After a set period of time, all three groups completed cognitive performance tests. What group performed the best? The group that spent time socializing. Now it’s possible that the group doing intellectual activities had drained their cognitive energy before the assessment similar to how exercising before a 5k race likely won’t produce optimal results. But, it’s an important finding nonetheless.

Another study, found that if a fruit fly were to live in the presence of other younger, active flies then they live approximately twice as long as if left to live by themselves. A study on women found that those who manage a large social network reduced their risk of dementia by 25%. And if those same women had contact with their social network everyday, then that risk of dementia was cut down by 50%. Lastly, a study out of Harvard found that the most social people reported half as much memory loss while aging compared to the least social people.

It’s well known in the scientific community that your social health is critical to your cognitive health but it’s still fairly new to me. After even more research, I found that your social health not only influences your cognitive performance, lifespan and memory but also your mood, neurodegeneration and resilience to stress. Clearly, social health is critical to cognitive health and therefore it’s important to develop strong social networks.

Choosing Your Circle of Influence

Now that we know how important social networks are for cognitive health, I think it’s critical to evaluate how we create this network. Jim Rohn, a famous motivational speaker, once said that “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” In regards to cognitive health, while it’s important to be social I also want to make sure I’m building a network that’ll help me become healthier and happier. And, while this quote holds a lot of weight, it goes even further. Not only are you and your future influenced by your closest friends, but you’re influenced by their closest friends even if you never meet them.

For example, studies have shown that if you have a friend that becomes obese, you’re 45% more likely to gain weight soon thereafter. Not only that, but if your friend has a friend that becomes obese, you’re 20% more likely to gain weight even if you don’t know that friend. And, it’s important to know that this effect not only influences weight gain, but has a similar effect with smoking, attitudes, goals, beliefs, success and even happiness. Time and time again, studies show that you become who you surround yourself with. This is why it’s so important that when you’re creating and maintaining a social network, you’re careful with who is included.

When I’m building my social circle, I’m trying to do so with a goal similar to Robin Sharma’s quote: “Associate only with positive, focused people who you can learn from and who will not drain your valuable energy with uninspiring attitudes. By developing relationships with those committed to constant improvement and the pursuit of the best that life has to offer, you will have plenty of company on your path to the top of whatever mountain you seek to climb.” By developing a social network with this in mind, I’m not only improving my cognitive health but I’m crafting a life around people who will push me to become better.

Ways to Get Started

Now that we know the importance of social health in regards to cognitive health, and we realize the role our social network plays in developing who we become, how do we get started? Below, are a few ideas:

  • Family First: Try phoning, video chatting or hanging out with family members that fit your criteria on a weekly basis. They’re probably your strongest ties. And, as the blog Wait But Why has pointed out, about 90% of the time you’ll spend with your parents has already happened before you turned 18 years old. And, 85% of the time you’ll spend with your siblings has already happened before 18 too. This is important to keep in mind because with the limited time left, make sure to value it and give it the priority it deserves. I try to see my family once a week and talk to at least one family member every day.
  • Find People With Skills/Qualities You Admire: Look for people that already have the skills and qualities you want to acquire and befriend them. For example, when I played men’s league recreational sports and I met someone on the team who had their own business, I would become very interested in learning about them and their business. If their were people on the team who were always in a positive mood, I’d make sure to have conversations with them. I was interested in learning and acquiring some of the traits or skills they possessed. Similarly, I tended to avoid befriending the players who were consistently negative, got in fights or were bad influences.
  • Attend Events that Interest You: Find and attend events near you that you’re interested in. For example, when I’ve wanted to meet people that were interested in fitness, I tried running in local 5k races and joining running clubs. Although, these weren’t very successful avenues for me, I did meet people that I’m still in contact with today. Putting yourself out there consistently provides you with more opportunities to widen and strengthen your social network even if the results aren’t always consistent.
  • Reduce Time With Negative Influences: Minimize the time you spend with people that are negative influences. For example, do you have a friend, family member or coworker that constantly complains? Or someone that’s consistently pessimistic about their life and future? Or someone who isn’t doing anything with their life? These people can have negative impacts on your cognitive and mental health. Remember that you become the people you spend the most time around. So, be careful with who you give your time to and don’t be afraid to minimize the time you spend with negative influences.

For me, I’ve done a pretty good job maintaining close relationships with my parents and siblings. I’ll usually speak to at least one of them a week. Our relationships are a key aspect of my life. They bring me joy and inspire me to become better. For example, in the middle of writing this blog post my sister called me via FaceTime to do a virtual family workout. I completed it, it was fun, my mood is boosted and I know how valuable this is to my health and happiness. But outside of that and my girlfriend, I don’t have many friends. I haven’t prioritized meeting new people and attending social events. Because of that, my social network is small and the loneliness that comes with it from time to time, is likely hurting my cognitive health. I know I need to prioritize it more and put myself out there to meet new people. Although it’s difficult, time consuming and occasionally deflating, I know that it’s a part of my life I need to keep a priority.

Final Thoughts

If you’re looking to prevent brain disease, memory degradation and mortality then focusing on your social health might be the key. But don’t just be social with anyone, find people that are positive, inspirational and optimistic because you’ll take on the traits and qualities of the people you surround yourself with the most. So try to find 15 minutes each day to speak to a family member that matters to you. Find another hour each week to attend a social event that can help strengthen or widen your social network. All of this will help ensure a healthy, happy, cognitively fit life.

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Hey, I am Brandon Zerbe

Welcome to myHealthSciences! My goal has always been to increase quality-of-life with healthy habits that are sustainable, efficient and effective. I do this by covering topics like Fitness, Nutrition, Sleep, Cognitive Health, Financial Independence and Minimalism. You can read more about me here.


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4 Responses

  • Thanks for more great articles Brandon. Great reading and teaching on cognitive health that that can be put into play easily.

  • Hey Brandon, another great week of absorbing your beneficial articles. Kudos for completing the Dave Ramsey program. I put his practice to work years ago and it’s worked well. Great article on Circle of Influence. The stats are eye openers. Thanks again for great news letters. Hope you are well.

    • You followed Dave Ramsey’s practice too? That’s awesome to hear and I’m glad it’s worked out well for you. I found it very informational and am glad I did it too.

      Thanks for the support!

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