My grandmother lives a good 1,400 miles away in the great state of Nebraska. When I was younger, we’d visit her every summer and sometimes even for Christmas. But as my siblings and I have gotten older, we’ve visited less and less.

And the last time we made a trip to see her was now about four years ago. So, naturally I worry: What if she needs something? What if her health suddenly declines? And what if we can’t get there fast enough?

I am a worry wart—so no matter what, I will worry. However, new research does provide me with some comfort pertaining to my grandma’s health. This study “Psychological well-being in elderly adults with extraordinary episodic memory” conducted at Northwestern University suggests that the decline of memory and cognitive functioning is slowed by the maintenance of positive, loving friendships—which is great news for my grandma, as she has been friends with the same wonderful women for years.

This emerging research allows me to relax a little when it comes to this particular aspect of my grandma’s health. It is important, however, that I recognize a few things: there are limits and there are no guarantees. “It’s not as simple as saying if you have a strong social network, you’ll never get Alzheimer’s disease,” explains senior author Emily Rogalski, associate professor at Northwestern’s CNADC. “But if there is a list of healthy choices one can make, such as eating a certain diet and not smoking, maintaining strong social networks may be an important one on that list. None of these things by themselves guarantee you don’t get the disease, but they may still have health benefits.”

In order to make their discovery, the research team administered a 42-question test called the Ryff Psychological Well-Being Scale, which examines six aspects of psychological well-being; these include autonomy, positive relations with others, environmental mastery, personal growth, purpose in life, and self-acceptance. The SuperAgers—or people 80 years and older who have a cognitive ability similar to those in their 50s or 60s—scored a median score of 40 in positive relationships with others, but the control group only scored a median score of 36. This, the researchers say, is a significant difference.

The research team ultimately found that SuperAgers reported having more fulfilling, quality relationships than their peers of the same age with average cognitive ability at 80. These findings follow another recent study on SuperAgers from the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center (CNADC) at Northwestern University Fienberg School of medicine, which discovered that their brain’s cortex is significantly larger than their counterparts’.

Rogalski further clarifies the team’s research: “You don’t have to be the life of the party, but this study supports the theory that maintaining strong social networks seems to be linked to slower cognitive decline,” she says. So, it doesn’t necessarily matter how many friends these individuals do or don’t have—instead, it is the quality of these friendships that truly make a difference in their lives and overall health.

“This finding is particularly exciting as a step toward understanding what factors underlie the preservation of cognitive ability in advanced age, particularly those that may be modifiable,” says Amanda Cook, first author and clinical neuropsychology doctoral student. And I couldn’t agree more. As a granddaughter, I worry about the health decline of my beloved second mother. Every day I hope that she goes without injury or sickness, and I am relieved to know that her loyalty and love will play a part in the maintenance of her health.

Sources: Northwestern University “Close Friends Linked to a Sharper Memory.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 2 November 2017.

“Psychological well-being in elderly adults with extraordinary episodic memory” by Amanda Cook Maher, Stephanie Kielb, Emmaleigh Loyer, Maureen Connelley, Alfred Rademaker, M.-Marsel Mesulam, Sandra Weintraub, Dan McAdams, Regina Logan, Emily Rogalski in PLOS ONE. Published online October 23 2017 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0186413

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