Join a walking group, book club or take a class – being more socially active in your 50s and 60s reduces your risk of dementia

This is according to a University College London (UCL)-led study.

According to the study’s lead author, Dr Andrew Sommerlad of the UCL Department of Psychiatry, dementia is a major global health challenge, but one in three cases is potentially preventable.

“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.”

Over 10 000 people studied

The research team used data from the Whitehall II study which tracked 10 228 people who had been asked on six occasions between 1985 and 2013 about their frequency of social contact with friends and relatives.

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The same participants also completed cognitive testing from 1997 onwards, and researchers referred to the study subjects’ electronic health records up until 2017 to see if they were ever diagnosed with dementia.

The researchers focused on the relationships between social contact at age 50, 60 and 70, and any subsequent incidence of dementia, and whether social contact was linked to cognitive decline, after accounting for other factors such as education, employment, marital status and socioeconomic status.

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A friend a day keeps dementia at bay

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.

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People need people

The researchers say there are a few explanations for how social contact could reduce dementia risk.

“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,” says senior author Professor Gill Livingston (UCL Psychiatry).

Spending more time with friends could also be good for mental well-being, and may correlate with being physically active, both of which can also reduce the risk of developing dementia,” adds Professor Livingston, who previously led a major international study outlining the life course factors that affect dementia risk.

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Source: University College London via

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