People who can usually count on someone to listen to them when they need to talk may have stronger measures of brain health known to be protective against brain aging and disease.
If you know somebody who hears you out when you need to get something off your chest, he or she may be doing more than just making you feel better in the moment. Good listening may also help support cognitive function later in life and prevent problems like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study published August 16, 2021, in JAMA Network Open.

“People who have a good listener in their life are more likely to have a brain that sustains its ‘raw horsepower’ over time,” says the lead study author, Joel Salinas, MD, a neurology professor at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine.

“So, in addition to the many known benefits of listening, cultivating an available pool of good listeners in your life may actually increase cognitive capability and brain health,” Dr. Salinas says.

For the study, researchers analyzed data from 2,171 adults who are part of the Framingham Heart Study. Everyone completed neuropsychological testing that assessed cognitive function, answered questions about social support in their lives (including whether they had someone they could count on as a good listener), and had magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to assess brain volume. They were 63 years old on average, and none of them had dementia, stroke, or other neurological conditions.

The cognitive function tests and the brain scans that assessed brain volume allowed the researchers to assess global cognition (thinking, attention, memory, language, and visual and spatial reasoning), as well as cognitive resilience (a measure of your brain’s ability to function better than would be expected for the amount of physical aging).

While global cognition typically declines along with brain volume as people age, individuals with higher levels of cognitive resilience will have a better cognitive performance than is typical for people with their brain volume. Higher cognitive resilience serves as a buffer, therefore, against the effects of aging and diseases of the brain, Salinas explains.

People who reported that they always or often can count on someone to listen when they need to talk had significantly better global cognition and higher cognitive resilience than people who didn’t have a person like this in their lives, the study found.
There wasn’t an association between cognitive resilience and four other types of social support: someone available to give good advice; someone who shows you love and affection; someone who reliably offers emotional support; and enough contact with someone you trust and can confide in.

More Data Is Needed to Show How Feeling Heard May Protect the Brain
While the study wasn’t designed to determine whether or how having a good listener in your life might directly cause better cognitive function, it’s possible that having these conversations may boost brain health by reducing chronic stress and systemic inflammation — both things that can lead to impaired brain function over time, Salinas says.

One limitation of the study is that social support was self-reported, and participants’ responses might not always have been accurate. Researchers didn’t objectively measure social support, and they also didn’t assess the quality of these relationships or determine how often people spent time together.

Another limitation of the study is that the cognitive tests, brain scans, and social support questionnaires were all done at a single point in time. It’s possible that these things shifted over time in ways that might alter the relationship between social support and cognitive function. And therefore this study only suggests that these two factors (having a good listener in your life and improved brain health) are related, not necessarily that one causes the other.

But it’s worth noting that the new data align with what other research suggests are benefits of having strong social connections.

Earlier Research Links Social Ties to Brain Health
“There is a growing body of evidence showing that social connectedness and social support are beneficial to physical, mental, and cognitive health and well-being through the life span — and that social isolation and loneliness are detrimental to physical, mental, and cognitive health and well-being,” says Guohua Li, MD, DrPH, an epidemiology professor at Columbia University in New York City, who wasn’t involved in the study.

For example, one study published May 2016 in Geriatric Psychiatry examined data on 8,382 adults 65 and older and found that people who reported lower levels of loneliness at the start of the study had less cognitive decline 12 years later.

A study of 3,294 adults published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia in March 2017 found that people who reported higher levels of companionship and emotional support had a lower risk of dementia and higher levels of a protein known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps build and strengthen brain cells.

Bigger social networks — in real life, not Facebook — may also help preserve cognitive function as people age, according to a study published in the Lancet Neurology that looked at the relationship between networks of friends and family, cognitive test results, and brain health based on autopsies (performed at time of death) for 89 older adults. Even when autopsies suggested advanced dementia, people who had had larger networks of friends and family had previously scored better on cognitive tests than people who had not had big social networks.

“In general, the research supports that social support and social embeddedness is neuroprotective,” says Christina Matz, PhD, an associate professor and the codirector of the Center on Aging & Work at the Boston College School of Social Work, who wasn’t involved in the new study

So, What Makes Someone a Good Listener?
There’s an art to listening, Salinas says. Common traits of good listeners go way beyond sitting there and nodding and agreeing with what is said.

“Some of the best qualities are a willingness to sit with and be present for the other person, engaging with what they're saying, repeating back so they know they were heard, and asking questions, like a good editor, to help them get at the story underneath what they’re saying or feeling upfront,” Salinas says.

It’s important to point out that for some, having these types of meaningful conversations with friends, family, mentors, or others, happens often. For others, having a truly meaningful conversation (and finding someone with whom to be truly candid about circumstances, thoughts, feelings, and emotions) can be more challenging.  

Loneliness and isolation can affect anyone, says Dorina Cadar, PhD, a senior researcher in behavioral science and health at University College London in the United Kingdom, who wasn’t involved in the study. People suffer losses, tragic life events, wars, and migration issues, “and let’s not forget we are all affected by the pandemic lockdowns when the possibility of maintaining social connections was restricted for so many,” Dr. Cadar says.

When you don’t have a close friend or family member to confide in, you might want to consider joining a club or volunteering to be around people with common interests, Dr. Matz suggests. Over time, this may be a way to forge new friendships.

Seeking out a social worker or therapist may also give you a good listener in your life and help you discover ways to develop closer relationships with friends and family, Matz adds.