The Lifelong Impact of Friendship on Cognitive Health
Friendship can have a powerful impact on our overall mental health and well-being. And it’s no secret that socializing and building friendships are healthy for our cognition. From childhood onwards, friendship and social connection are key ingredients in our cognitive health. However, as we learn and grow and become better at friendship throughout our lives, the specific impacts on our cognition develop as well. How are friendship and cognitive health intertwined, and how do friends affect our cognition throughout different stages of life?
Friendship in childhood
As kids, we constantly absorb information and develop how we handle various situations. Friendships can a huge role in our development and lay some groundwork for our cognitive skills as adults.
As kids, interactions with friends encourage us to practice language and communication skills. Interacting with peers involves listening, taking turns, and expressing thoughts and emotions effectively. Through conversations, disagreements, and storytelling with friends, children expand their vocabulary, improve their articulation, and develop a deeper understanding of language nuances.
Friendships also teach children the importance of considering others’ perspectives and empathizing with their feelings, developing their social cognition skills. Interacting with friends helps children learn to understand different viewpoints, negotiate conflicts, and develop emotional intelligence. This ability to empathize and see things from multiple angles fosters cognitive growth, as it encourages critical thinking and problem-solving. Understanding social cues, managing emotions, and regulating behavior all require cognitive processing and contribute to the development of executive functioning skills.
Additionally, friendships provide an environment where children are exposed to new ideas, perspectives, and imaginative scenarios. Engaging in collaborative and imaginative play with friends stimulates cognitive flexibility and creativity. It encourages children to think flexibly, invent new games, solve problems creatively, and explore different ways of approaching tasks. This cognitive flexibility lays the foundation for creativity and adaptability later in life.
Friendship in teenagehood
During our teen years, we begin to think in a more complex way, taking many facets of a situation into consideration before making decisions. In this time, we also begin to develop our own sense of self and identity. We begin to understand ourselves and the world in a more thoughtful and complex way, and begin developing our own ideas and opinions.
These cognitive shifts can lead to big changes in our lives, such as discovering new hobbies and passions, developing plans for the future, or realizing that we’re no longer compatible with certain friends. On the other hand, we may realize that certain friends are very compatible with us and more important to us than previously understood. As we go through the stresses of being a teen, trustworthy friends can offer support and guidance that may help us lower our stress levels and maintain our mental health.
During teenhood, our brains are still very plastic and ready to take in new information and discover new things about ourselves. The friendships that we have in these years can provide us with new ideas and perspectives. This helps us continue to build our cognitive flexibility, more intricate social cognition skills, as well as attention and executive function skills. Navigating more complex situations and disagreements among friends can help us think creatively and learn more nuanced problem-solving skills. These experiences stimulate our neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize its connections.
Friendship in adulthood
As we go through the many obstacles and adventures of adulthood, friendships can help keep us mentally healthy and cognitively sharp. Healthy adult friendships tend to involve less conflict than friendships in our younger years. Our social cognition, empathy, and executive function skills mature as we get older. This may allow us to enjoy more healthy and functional friendships.
Strong, supportive friendships have been shown to mitigate stress levels, promoting better cognitive health. As we go through adulthood, we will inevitably experience periods of stress. We don’t necessarily plan for impactful life events. For example, breakups, career transitions, illness, financial setbacks, moving, divorce, and loss can all take us by surprise. As much as we may try to plan our lives out to avoid too much stress, life can throw curveballs. The presence of friends during challenging times can act as a buffer against the negative effects of stress on the brain. Emotional support from friends reduces anxiety and improves our ability to cope with life’s pressures. This allows our cognitive resources to remain focused on other tasks, such as problem-solving and decision-making.
Friendship in older age
As we get older, the importance of friendship can become even more evident. The companionship, communication, shared memories, and emotional support offered by friends contribute to healthy aging. Interacting with friends encourages us to exercise our memory, attention, and social cognitive skills. Studies have shown that seniors with strong social networks and friendships tend to experience improved memory retention and a reduced risk of age-related cognitive impairments.
Friendship and cognitive health are closely intertwined all throughout our lives. As we go through different stages of life, friendship can play different roles and encourage brain health in evolving ways. Life may give us some uphill battles, but friendships help us through it and help to keep our cognition healthy along the way.