Socially active people face lower later dementia risk

Author: Ingrid Torjesen

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People who are more socially active in their 50s and 60s face a lower risk of developing dementia later on, a study* published in PLOS Medicine has found.

The researchers used data from the Whitehall II study, tracking 10,228 civil servants who had been asked on six occasions between 1985 and 2013 about their frequency of social contact with friends and relatives. The same participants also completed cognitive testing from 1997 onwards. The researchers checked the participants’ medical records up to 2017 for diagnoses of dementia.

The researchers found that increased social contact at age 60 is associated with a significantly lower risk of developing dementia later in life. The analysis showed that someone who saw friends almost daily at age 60 was 12% less likely to develop dementia than someone who only saw one or two friends every few months.

They found similarly strong associations between social contact at ages 50 and 70 and subsequent dementia; while those associations did not reach statistical significance, the researchers say that social contact at any age may well have a similar impact on reducing dementia risk. Social contact in mid to late life was similarly correlated with general cognitive measures.

Previous studies have found a link between social contact and dementia risk, but they did not have such long follow-up times, so they could not rule out the possibility that the beginnings of cognitive decline may have been causing people to see fewer people, rather than the other way around, the researchers said. The long follow-up in the present study strengthens the evidence that social engagement could protect people from dementia in the long run.

One million people are expected to have dementia in the UK by 2021, and one in three cases are potentially preventable," said the study's lead author, Dr Andrew Sommerlad, from University College London (UCL) Psychiatry.

“Here we've found that social contact, in middle age and late life, appears to lower the risk of dementia. This finding could feed into strategies to reduce everyone's risk of developing dementia, adding yet another reason to promote connected communities and find ways to reduce isolation and loneliness."

The researchers suggested that socially engaged people are exercising cognitive skills such as memory and language, which may help them to develop cognitive reserve.

“While it may not stop their brains from changing, cognitive reserve could help people cope better with the effects of age and delay any symptoms of dementia," said senior author Professor Gill Livingston from UCL Psychiatry.

"Spending more time with friends could also be good for mental wellbeing, and may correlate with being physically active, both of which can also reduce the risk of developing dementia," she added.

Dr Kalpa Kharicha, head of innovation, policy and research at the Campaign to End Loneliness, said: "Almost half of UK adults say that their busy lives stop them from connecting with other people. It's important we make changes to our daily lives to ensure we take the time to connect with others. We need more awareness of the benefits that social wellbeing and connectedness can have to tackle social isolation, loneliness and reduce dementia risk."

Fiona Carragher, chief policy and research officer at Alzheimer's Society, encouraged people to do what they could to do reduce their risk of dementia.

“Along with reducing your alcohol intake and stopping smoking, we encourage people across the country to get out into the sunshine, and do something active with family and friends.”


*Sommerlad A, Séverine S, Singh-Manoux A, et al. Association of social contact with dementia and cognition: 28-year follow-up of the Whitehall II cohort study. PLOS Medicine. Published: August 2, 2019. DOI:10.1371/journal.pmed.1002862

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