Kelly Deragon, PsyD is a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis Research & Treatment. She spoke with us about why spending time with family and friends at the holidays and throughout the year, is beneficial to both mental and physical health.

Read the Q&A with Dr. Deragon below.

WAM: Research suggests that having close ties to friends and family, and participating in meaningful social activities, may help people maintain their thinking skills better in later life and slow down cognitive decline. What’s the mechanism at work during social interaction that has that impact on the brain​?
Dr. Deragon: Our brains are a muscle that works well when it is continually stimulated. Meaningful activity and social engagement may slow down cognitive decline by providing the brain with opportunities to engage in tasks that use several areas of the brain. Most people do not realize the complex network of brain structures that are needed to comprehend a task, organize thoughts, and synthesize information to provide a behavioral response. Social interactions provide mental stimulation in addition to improving mood.

WAM: What other health benefits do we encounter from having positive social interaction?
Dr. Deragon: Positive social interaction creates a sense of belonging and produces endorphins in the brain. These chemicals make us feel happy and can lead to improved health behaviors, such as eating healthier, exercising more and following up with medical recommendations. Social interactions may also motivate a person to engage in additional recreational activities that support improved mood and quality of life.

WAM: But what happens if the interaction is not socially rewarding, but stressful? What does that kind of interaction do to one’s brain, physical or mental health?
Dr. Deragon: Some types of interactions will be socially rewarding, and others may be neutral. While the neutral interactions do not have a negative impact, they may not provide the type of mental stimulation one may like. Negative social interactions, however, can cause distress and leave a person feeling anxious or depressed. Stress can have many negative impacts on physical health including cardiovascular and immune health. Also, we know that stress can induce anxiety and worry which may impact mental clarity.

WAM: We’ve heard that a lack of human connection has serious health repercussions—that a sense of loneliness is as detrimental to a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic. Help us understand that impact.
Dr. Deragon: Humans are social creatures and our brain gives off chemicals that makes us feel happy (endorphins) and help us connect with others (oxytocin). Oxytocin is called the love molecule and it helps us to bond to other people. When we do not produce these chemicals naturally, we may look towards other ways to elicit positive feelings through alcohol or nicotine. Loneliness may also cause a sense of boredom or numbness that individuals may try to cope with by engaging in smoking, drinking alcohol or other negative health behaviors. 

WAM: If we notice that our family or friends are not engaging socially but are becoming more socially isolated or feeling lonely, what are some ways to help them?
Dr. Deragon: If a family member has become more isolative, it is important to consider if there are any changes in their physical or mental health. Aside from seeing a medical provider, it might help to set up a schedule to visit with them on a regular basis. Plan activities that they might enjoy such as card games, going for a walk or going to the park. Reminiscing about the past can also be a great way to spark up conversation and elicit positive emotions. Pets and children may also provide social interactions that are somewhat less intimidating, but equally rewarding. No matter what you do, start small and don’t give up on trying to include them in social events and activities.