Can Social Connection Protect Your Brain in Old Age?

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In childhood, the attunement and responsiveness of your primary caregiver can determine the “attachment style” you carry into adulthood, which influences the way you tend to approach, avoid, and interact with others.

Twenty years of accumulated research data also show that interpersonal interactions influence the development of the brain and the likelihood of developing physical and mental illness.

At UCLA's Interpersonal Neurobiology Conference last weekend, I heard some of the latest findings and also had the pleasure of being present for Sir Richard Bowlby’s presentation of a fascinating pilot study conducted by an associate of his, Jane Sherwood.*

Sherwood has observed in her decades of social work practice that older adults with dementia, or their parents or grandparents, tend to have suffered some kind of attachment trauma early in life.

Obvious examples of attachment trauma to a child include his or her loss of a primary caregiver or significant family member. A less obvious example would be the stillbirth of a child negatively affecting the grieving mother's ability to properly attune to a surviving child.

But why would your parents' or grandparents' trauma affect you?

It's because attachment styles can be transmitted intergenerationally. That is, to the extent that a child does not enjoy the appropriate amount and quality of attunement from the primary caregiver, he or she is more likely to grow into an adult with an insecure attachment.

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That means having difficulty establishing and maintaining attunement to others in optimal ways, including his or her own child. That child is then at risk of developing an insecure attachment as well, and so on.

So, with these things in mind, Sherwood set out to test the strength of the correlation between early trauma and the ultimate onset of dementia, including the effects of intergenerational transmission.

She used public records to compile family trees for 120 individuals (60 with dementia and 60 without) and took note of untimely deaths, separations, or other disruptions likely to affect attachment during the formative years of individuals and their maternal ancestors, for four generations.

Sherwood ranked each of the cases from 0 to 9 by severity of early attachment trauma. As you can see in the graph, those who suffered the most (either personally, or through intergenerational transmission in the maternal line) are overrepresented in the “with dementia” sample.

This, despite the fact that the members of the non-dementia control group were actually at greater risk for dementia when considering the currently-known risk factors, such as being widowed or single for life, or having cared for a partner with dementia.

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These data don't establish causation, and more scientific research and replication is needed. However, the correlation she found provides hope that we may be on the cusp of at least identifying a major risk factor for dementia. Best of all, unlike the other known risk factors, attachment trauma is reversible and the intergenerational transmission of it is preventable.

Connection as tasty medicine

It’s well established that attuned connection with others is good for your health. At the conference, Dan Siegel discussed one recent study in which people recovering from colds who received empathy from someone else for just 30 seconds per day recovered one day earlier than those who didn't.

Brain studies have also shown that abuse or neglect in childhood impairs or damages the growth of the brain fibers that integrate its various parts, which in turn impairs its ability to regulate itself. Attuned communication with others stimulates their growth.

Sherwood’s data also hint at the potential preventive power of close social ties. If you're a critical thinker and were wondering why some people in the non-dementia control group emerged unscathed despite relatively severe attachment trauma, consider that in every case, those individuals experienced their trauma along with a sibling.

Sherwood posits that having other close attachments to commiserate with may mitigate the damage from the disruption of other ones. It makes intuitive sense that attachment trauma can be depowered in the same manner that it was caused: through relationship with others. And, indeed, the ability to "earn" a secure attachment style through your relationships later in life is a cornerstone of attachment theory.

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Generally, the kinds of interactions you need to do that are the same ones that an infant needs in the first place, and the ones you need to thrive as an adult. The key nutrients of healthy interpersonal relationships don’t change over your lifespan any more than does the composition of the air you need to breathe.

They include being witnessed as a whole person by another who is willing to join you in your experience. Having your needs acknowledged and responded to—though not necessarily always gratified—when you express them. Being supported and encouraged in exploring the world and pursuing your goals by someone who will still be there when you return, whether or not you were successful.

These things feel great for your brain because we humans are hardwired as social animals from cradle to grave. As with all of the dimensions of life that I talk about here at RLP, your task, if you want to thrive, is to accommodate the needs of your core self as much as possible—to reduce the friction between the truest you and your environment.

If Sherwood is onto something, building healthy, supportive relationships with others may protect your brain in old age, but you don't need to wait until then to enjoy the results.
* If the name Bowlby sounds familiar to you, it could be because his father, John Bowlby, was one of the founders of attachment theory (and I’ve mentioned him here before).