Association of Social Support With Brain Volume and Cognition

JAMA Netw Open. 2021 Aug 2;4(8):e2121122. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.21122.


Importance: Cognitive resilience refers to the general capacity of cognitive processes to be less susceptible to differences in brain structure from age- and disease-related changes. Studies suggest that supportive social networks reduce Alzheimer disease and related disorder (ADRD) risk by enhancing cognitive resilience, but data on specific social support mechanisms are sparse.

Objective: To examine the association of individual forms of social support with a global neuroanatomical measure of early ADRD vulnerability and cognition.

Design, setting, and participants: This retrospective cross-sectional analysis used prospectively collected data from Framingham Study participants without dementia, stroke, or other neurological conditions who underwent brain magnetic resonance imaging and neuropsychological testing at the same visit. Data from this large, population-based, longitudinal cohort were collected from June 6, 1997, to December 13, 1999 (original cohort), and from September 11, 1998, to October 26, 2001 (offspring cohort). Data were analyzed from May 22, 2017, to June 1, 2021.

Exposures: Total cerebral volume and, as a modifying exposure variable, self-reported availability of 5 types of social support measured by the Berkman-Syme Social Network Index.

Main outcomes and measures: The primary outcome was a global measure of cognitive function. Cognitive resilience was defined as the modification of total cerebral volume's association with cognition, such that smaller β estimates (presented in SD units) indicate greater cognitive resilience (ie, better cognitive performance than estimated by lower total cerebral volume).

Results: The study included 2171 adults (164 in the original cohort and 2007 in the offspring cohort; mean [SD] age, 63 [10] years; 1183 [54%] female). High listener availability was associated with greater cognitive resilience (β = 0.08, P < .001) compared with low listener availability (β = 0.20, P = .002). Overall findings persisted after adjustment for potential confounders. Other forms of social support were not significant modifiers (advice: β = -0.04; P = .40 for interaction; love-affection: β = -0.07, P = .28 for interaction; emotional support: β = -0.02, P = .73 for interaction; and sufficient contact: β = -0.08; P = .11 for interaction).

Conclusions and relevance: The results of this cross-sectional cohort study suggest that social support in the form of supportive listening is associated with greater cognitive resilience, independently modifying the association between lower total cerebral volume and poorer cognitive function that would otherwise indicate increased ADRD vulnerability at the preclinical stage. A refined understanding of social support mechanisms has the potential to inform strategies to reduce ADRD risk and enhance cognitive resilience.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alzheimer Disease / prevention & control*
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / prevention & control*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Social Support*
  • Vulnerable Populations