Maintaining a strong social network comes with lots of obvious benefits, but new research has found that keeping your friends close also has the unexpected perk of keeping your memory and cognitive functions sharp as you age.

Researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine conducted a study involving a group of so-called "SuperAgers" who are 80 years or older and have cognitive abilities on par with people at least 20-30 years younger. They found that SuperAgers have more fulfilling relationships compared to peers with more average cognitive functions.

The results were published last month in the journal Plos One.

"You don't have to be the life of the party, but this study supports the theory that maintaining strong social networks seems to be linked to slower cognitive decline," said senior author and Northwestern associate professor Emily Rogalski.

The findings line up with earlier research that shows our friends may be our best tool for dealing with stress, and conversely that loneliness can be about as damaging as cancer.

"It's not as simple as saying if you have a strong social network, you'll never get Alzheimer's disease," Rogalski said. "But if there is a list of healthy choices one can make, such as eating a certain diet and not smoking, maintaining strong social networks may be an important one on that list. None of these things by themselves guarantees you don't get the disease, but they may still have health benefits."

Beyond staying social, science has also found other techniques that could help keep your brain sharpened as you age. Other recent research found that trying new things and challenging yourself more often is a good place to start. Some tout the power of mindfulness techniques while yet another study found that adopting the mindset that you simply refuse to accept the alleged ravages of aging can actually work, at least when it comes to your mental faculties.

So call up your friends, but don't just talk about the good old days; make plans to challenge yourselves today, and tomorrow.