Staying Socially Active at Age 60 Lowers Risk of Developing Dementia Later in Life

By Mat Lecompte, Bel Marra Health
August 17, 2019 Updated: August 19, 2019

For adults aged 50 and older, being socially active may be the key to lowering the risk of developing dementia later in life. A new study led by the University College London (UCL) shows how important it is to make changes in daily life to ensure we take the time to connect with others.

The research, published in PLOS Medicine, reports the most powerful evidence to date showing the link between how social contact earlier in life could play an essential role in keeping dementia at bay.

For the study, the team of researchers used data from the Whitehall II study, which followed 10,228 participants to track the frequency of social contact with friends and relatives. The study lasted from 1985 to 2013 and required participants to complete cognitive testing from 1997 onwards. The researchers continued after the study to use electronic health records up to 2017 to track any participants that were diagnosed with dementia.

They found that increased social contact at age 60 is associated with a significantly lower risk of developing dementia later in life. They were able to conclude that participants who saw friends almost daily at age 60 were 12 percent less likely to develop dementia than someone who only saw one or two friends every few months.

Lead author, Dr. Andrew Sommerlad (UCL Psychiatry), spoke about the study: “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.”

“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.”

happy elderly couple
(ccpixx photography/Shutterstock)

Long Follow up Time

While previous studies have found a link between social contact and dementia risk, they did not use such a long follow-up time. This meant that they were unable to 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. This long follow-up period in this new study strengthens the evidence that the more social engagement people have, the more they lessen the risk of dementia in the future.

Senior author of the study, Professor Gill Livingston (UCL Psychiatry), explained how 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.”

Gill added, “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.”

No matter what your age, social interaction has been shown to have many health benefits, and this new study reinforces how important it is to see friends and family daily. With the number of cases of dementia rising drastically, studies such as this are essential for managing risk and prevention.

Although there are many factors to consider when looking at the risk of dementia, this study can confirm that social isolation is a risk factor for cognitive decline. So, be sure to get out into the sunshine daily and do something active with friends and family.

Mat Lecompte is a freelance health and wellness journalist. This article was first published on Bel Marra Health.