Maileen Ulep-Reed, PhD, APRN, FNP-BC completed her undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her research seeks to better understand the intersection between cognition, language and culture in neurodegenerative disorders. The American Association of Nurse Practitioners awarded her the prestigious NP State Award for Excellence for Nevada in 2018. She spoke with us about how social connection can benefit your brain.

Read the Q&A with Dr. Ulep-Reed below.

WAM: How does positive social interaction impact overall mental health, and what role does it play in preventing or managing conditions such as depression and anxiety?
Dr. Ulep-Reed: Humans are naturally social beings. We have evolved to need social ties with some personalities (e.g., extroverts vs introverts) requiring more connections than others. Studies have shown that loneliness and social isolation are associated with increased anxiety, depressive symptoms, and sleep disturbance, to name a few. In contrast, social interaction is associated with positive benefits in mental and cognitive health (e.g., reduced stress, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression and anxiety). It should be noted that it is not merely the quantity of interactions but also the quality of those social connections that matter.

WAM: In what ways does social interaction contribute to cognitive health and brain function, particularly in the context of aging and the prevention of cognitive decline?
Dr. Ulep-Reed: Studies have shown that regular social engagement may increase cognitive reserve and improve resiliency. Social interaction has been associated with a slower rate of age-related cognitive changes and lower risk of developing dementia.

WAM: A Harvard study found that people who were most satisfied with their relationships at age 50 years were the healthiest at age 80 years. Are there any lifestyle factors or health behaviors associated with strong relationship satisfaction that might explain the observed long-term health benefits?
Dr. Ulep-Reed: In general, certain health behaviors or lifestyle factors throughout the life course such as exercise, good sleep, eating a well-balanced diet, and managing stressors and medical conditions, among others, tend to prevent or mitigate illness and promote long-term health; whereas, other lifestyle behaviors such as inactivity/being sedentary, excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, and unbalanced diets (e.g., regularly consuming highly processed foods), to name a few, tend to lead to negative health outcomes. Individuals with strong relationships/connections tend to engage in more positive lifestyle behaviors.

WAM: 1 in 5 Americans say they’re lonely. How can someone who doesn’t have family or friends around seek out positive social interaction?
Dr. Ulep-Reed: There are a variety of ways one can get involved and meet new people, such as volunteering and/or joining a hobby (e.g., cooking, sewing reading, dance, golf, etc.) club or exercise (walking, swimming, tennis, etc.) group. Local community centers usually post a list of events, classes, and programs that they offer. If attending an event doesn’t work out the first time around, that is okay, don’t get discouraged. Try again as different programs will attract different people, diverse individuals. Generally, joining a program that is of a topic of interest to you will attract like-minded individuals connecting you to others with a common interest.