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PUMPING IRONY: Strength in Numbers

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A new study suggests that life in an empty nest may be bad for the brain.

The empty nest I’ve been sharing with My Lovely Wife in the half-dozen years since our offspring spread their wings offers several benefits: lower grocery bills, less bathroom congestion, and a sense of hard-won tranquility. But there are drawbacks, as well. Dinnertime conversations tend to lag without their energetic contributions, boxes of stuff they’ve left behind (and we don’t dare discard) dominate our limited storage space, and I often wonder if it would be too much to expect a phone call sometime that doesn’t involve a request for emergency funds.

It could be worse, however. Our “old-couple model” of living could be damaging our brains.

That’s one way to interpret the results of a study Ohio State University researchers published last week in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.Scientists set up two “households” of elderly mice — some lived in pairs while others were housed with six roommates — and observed their behavior for three months. They hoped to learn whether higher levels of social interaction would affect the mice’s cognitive abilities.

“We know that in humans there’s a strong correlation between cognitive health and social connections,” lead researcher Elizabeth Kirby, PhD, said in a statement released by the university. “But we don’t know if it’s having a group of friends that’s protecting people or if it’s that people with declining brain health withdraw from their human connections.”

Kirby’s team tested the mice’s memories by moving a toy from one location to another and observed their reactions. The researchers theorized that a brainier rodent would investigate the relocated toy, and that proved to be the case. The old couples? Not so much.

“With the pair-housed mice, they had no idea that the object had moved,” Kirby noted. “The group-housed mice were much better at remembering what they’d seen before and went to the toy in a new location, ignoring another toy that had not moved.”

The old couples also had trouble keeping up with their frat-house counterparts during a maze-based memory test. Each group was able to find the various escape routes more quickly with each test, but the couples went about it in a way that resonated with this geezer. “They developed a serial-searching strategy where they checked every hole as quickly as possible,” Kirby explained. “It’d be like walking as quickly as possible through each row of a parking lot to look for your car rather than trying to remember where your car actually is and walk to that spot.”

Been there, done that.

Kirby and her team later examined the brain tissue of all the mice and found fewer signs of inflammation than in the old couples. These outcomes, she said, suggest that “merely having a larger social network can positively influence the aging brain.”

I understand that mice are not humans and that observational studies are always inconclusive, but Kirby’s research hit home for me. I think it’s quite possible that I’ve become more forgetful since the kids moved out. It seems to me that I’ve been vexing MLW pretty regularly these days by putting things where they don’t belong.

When I suggested to her that this may be a sign of looming dementia, she pondered for a moment before setting me straight. “No, you’ve always been like that.”

is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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