Meta-analysis shows social interaction reduces dementia risk

Matt Woodley

28/04/2023 3:09:49 PM

Strong social connections were associated with a lower risk of mild cognitive impairment, dementia and death.

Family get together.
Frequent interaction with family and friends was found to reduce the risk of getting dementia.

Australian researchers have assessed results from 13 international studies and found that spending time with loved ones can have significant health benefits as people age.
The researchers studied the link between social connections in older people and the risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), dementia and mortality by pooling together the results from a host of studies that followed people aged 65 years and above over long periods of time.  
‘We know from previous research that social connections are important for our health and being isolated puts us at higher risk of dementia and death,’ first author Dr Suraj Samtani, a University of New South Wales clinical psychologist and researcher, said.
‘Our goal was to find which social connections protect us from dementia and death.’
The study population assessed by the new research was more diverse than previous meta-analyses, taking in results from studies in low-, middle- and high-income countries across the world, including Australia, North America, Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa.
Researchers analysed information about the social connections of the study participants, with a particular focus on the social connection type, function, and quality, before looking at whether people developed MCI or dementia, or passed away.
‘We looked at social variables across these studies, such as living with others, interacting with friends and family, engaging in community activities, and social support,’ Dr Samtani said.
‘We wanted to know which of these are associated with risk of getting dementia over time or dying.’
Among study participants, good social connections were associated with a lower risk of MCI, dementia and death.
‘We found that frequent interactions – monthly or weekly – with family and friends and having someone to talk to reduced the risk of getting dementia,’ Dr Samtani said.
‘We also found that living with others and doing community activities reduced the risk of dying.’
The RACGP and other medical organisations have previously urged the Federal Government to include social prescribing in its 10-Year Primary Health Care Plan, while GPs with a specific interest in the area are also making it a more common aspect of everyday practice.
While the research team controlled for variables which could influence outcomes, including age, sex, education level, lifestyle factors and other chronic diseases, one limitation identified by the authors relates to the ‘chicken or the egg’ problem.
Participants who already had MCI or dementia at the beginning of the studies were excluded from the analysis, but they said it is possible these people had some undetected cognitive and physical health issues that could have impacted their social interactions rather than the other way around.
The next phase of their research will consider potential interventions aimed at improving the social connections of older adults to protect their brain and overall health.
‘We hope that helping people to stay engaged in conversations and maintain healthy friendships and relationships will help them to stay healthy and happy,’ Dr Samtani said.
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