Study: Having Good Listeners Helps Build Cognitive Resilience

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Key Takeaways

  • Having a supportive listener in your life helps preserve cognitive function as you age.
  • Supportive listening appears to build greater cognitive resilience than other forms of social support such as love and emotional support.
  • Experts recommend building a network of friends who are good listeners in your 40s and 50s.

Having a good listener in your life may help build cognitive resilience, the ability to function better against aging and adverse effects on the brain, according to a new study.

Researchers found that "supportive listening" appears to offer more cognitive benefits than other forms of social support, like receiving advice, love, and affection.

Joel Salinas, MD, a co-author of the study, tells Verywell that having a reliable listener had an even bigger impact on the brain than emotional support, a factor that has been associated with better cognitive function in older adults.

“There's some degree of stimulation of the brain that might be happening through this process of listening that you can't find through other forms of social support, like getting good advice or somebody helping you with your chores,” Salinas says.

People should take steps when they are younger to cultivate a network of people who can listen supportively, Salinas adds.

“I tell people to hold on to those connections," he says, adding that people's social network tends to become insular after starting a family or having friends move away.

A good listener is not just someone who sits there and hears you out, Kathleen Welsch-Bohmer, PhD, a psychiatry professor at the Duke University School of Medicine, tells Verywell via email.

“Supportive listening is really about letting a person talk through a problem or something that is on their mind while we listen in a calm, nonjudgmental way," she says. "By not jumping in to offer advice or to solve the problem being shared, this way of interacting actually allows both people to feel connected."

Being available and supportive is a two-way street. “For the person with a concern or problem, sometimes just talking it through can lessen the burden and allow them to see a different perspective," she says. "And for the listener, helping another person find relief can also be so emotionally satisfying.”

Supportive Listening Lowers Risk of Age-Related Cognitive Problems

To examine how social support affects cognitive health, Salinas and his team used data from the Framingham heart study, a long-term observational study that started in 1948.

In the Framingham study, 2,171 participants had regular physical examinations and answered questionnaires about their lives. The assessment included five types of social support and their frequency: listening, advice, love-affection, emotional support, and sufficient contact.

To measure cognitive resilience, the researchers observed the brain volume in each participant and administered neuropsychological tests.

They found that people who reported greater access to supportive listeners had a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and related dementias. Active listening was the only form of social support that was highly associated with cognitive resilience.

While lower brain volume is related to poorer cognitive performance, participants with higher listener availability demonstrated slower cognitive aging. Their cognitive performance only decreased by 0.25 years for every lost unit of brain volume, compared to 4.25 years in people who have fewer supportive listeners.

The study results emphasized the importance of having good listeners in 40s and 50s, well before the age with heightened risk of cognitive disorders.

One of the limitations of this study was that it depends on how accurate the participants estimated the availability of people who listened to them, Salinas says. They reported on whether they had someone who listened to them actively, but not about the overall quality of their experience.

Being a supportive listener is a skill that can be learned, Salinas explains. “It really boils down to learning to listen non-judgmentally and to resist the urge to fix the problem," he says, adding that the act should be reciprocated.

What This Means For You

Having access to reliable listeners to you may be the key to delaying the onset of cognitive decline. It may be wise to cultivate relationships with people who will listen when you need to talk, and to do the same for others.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Salinas J, O’Donnell A, Kojis DJ. Association of social support with brain volume and cognition. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(8):e2121122. Available at doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.21122

  2. Seeman TE, Lusignolo TM, Albert M, Berkman L. Social relationships, social support, and patterns of cognitive aging in healthy, high-functioning older adults: MacArthur Studies of Successful AgingHealth Psychology. 2001;20(4):243-255. doi:10.1037/0278-6133.20.4.243

  3. KANNEL WB, FEINLEIB M, McNAMARA PM, GARRISON RJ, CASTELLI WP. An investigation of coronary heart disease in families: the framingham offspring studyAmerican Journal of Epidemiology. 1979;110(3):281-290.

By Valerie DeBenedette
Valerie DeBenedette has over 30 years' experience writing about health and medicine. She is the former managing editor of Drug Topics magazine.