Researchers say that social contact after age 60 could play a significant role in one’s development of cognitive decline.
LONDON — As we age, our social lives tend to wind down a bit compared to our younger years. While there is nothing wrong with the occasional Friday night spent curled up on the couch, a new study finds that maintaining an active social life into our 50s and 60s can help lower one’s risk of developing dementia later on in life.
Conducted by a team of researchers at the University College London, the longitudinal study presents the most convincing evidence thus far that regular social contact earlier in life diminishes one’s odds of suffering from dementia at an older age.
“Dementia is a major global health challenge, with one million people expected to have dementia in the UK by 2021, but we also know that one in three cases are potentially preventable,” says the study’s lead author, Dr Andrew Sommerlad, in a release. “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.”
Researchers used data collected for a previous study, consisting of 10,228 participants who had been surveyed six different times between 1985 and 2013 regarding their social habits, frequency of contact with friends, etc. Each participant also completed an annual cognitive assessment beginning in 1997, and researchers kept track of each person’s medical records until 2017 in order to see whether or not they developed dementia.
The study’s authors focused on the relationship between levels of social contact at ages 50, 60, and 70 and subsequent diagnoses of dementia. More specifically, they looked to see if social activity was linked to mental decline after accounting for outside factors such as education, marital status, and education.
The analysis revealed that robust social contact at age 60 was indeed associated with a significantly lower risk of dementia later on in life. An individual who saw friends almost everyday at age 60 was found to be 12% less likely to suffer from dementia than someone who only saw a few friends a handful of times every couple of months.
Similar associations were observed regarding social contact at ages 50 and 70 and dementia onset later in life. Researchers say these associations did not reach statistical significance, but nonetheless assert that social contact at any age is a good thing from a cognitive health perspective.
Previous research had already found a positive connection between social contact and mental cognition, but these studies didn’t include such extensive follow-up times. This made it impossible to rule out the chance that a cognitive decline into dementia was causing studied participants to stay home more often, not the other way around. The decades-long follow-up times included in this study make it the most definitive evidence thus far that staying social can protect against dementia.
As far as why social contact helps stave off dementia, the research team has a few theories.
“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,” senior author Professor Gill Livingston comments. “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.”
The study is published in PLOS Medicine.