60-year-olds who spend time with friends almost every day have a lower risk of dementia compared to those who only spend time with friends a few times every couple of months, a study out of University College London has found. This study offers the most robust and convincing evidence so far that regular social interactions can have a significant impact on your overall brain health.
As people get older and hit retirement age, it’s common to spend more time at home. But with one in three dementia cases considered as potentially preventable, it may be time to incorporate more social activities into your weekly routine.
“Dementia is a major global health challenge,” said Dr. Andrew Sommerlad, the study’s lead author. “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 study was published in the journal PLOS Medicine and led by a research team out of the University College London.
Researchers relied on data that was culled from the Whitehall II study, which tracked 10,228 participants. Every participant was asked six separate times between 1985 and 2013 about how frequently they were in social contact with friends and relatives. Beginning in 1997, each participant also underwent cognitive testing. If a participant was diagnosed with dementia at any point up until 2017, the researchers also had access to that information.
Researchers then analyzed each participant’s social contact at ages 50, 60, and 70, and looked at which participants got dementia. From there, they established a link between social relationships and cognitive decline after accounting for factors like education, marital status, employment, and socioeconomic status.
They found that people who saw friends almost every day at age 60 were 12% less likely to have dementia compared to people who saw friends a few times every couple of months.
People who had weak social contact at ages 50 and 70 were also associated with an increased risk of dementia — however, these associations were not statistically significant.
While previous research has also found a positive link between increased social contact and increased mental health, this study had a much more in-depth follow-up. This rules out the possibility that poor mental health was causing a decrease in social contact when it was actually the opposite.
Engaging in social relationships are good for brain health at any age. That’s because these relationships helps develop and maintain cognitive skills like speech and memory recall.
“People who are socially engaged 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 Professor Gill Livingston, who is the senior author on the study. “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.”
Reach out to a friend today — it’s good for your health!
C. Dixon likes to read, sing, eat, drink, write, and other verbs. She enjoys cavorting around the country to visit loved ones and experience new places, but especially likes to be at home with her husband, son, and dog.