Maintaining an active social life in middle age can stave off dementia, suggests new research.
Sixty-year-olds who meet up with friends and family on a regular basis are less likely to develop the devastating illness years later, according the study.
The same trend was also found among 50 and 70-year-olds, suggesting social contact at any age reduces the risk.
Study senior author Professor Gill Livingston (CORRECT), a psychiatrist at University College London (UCL), put the findings down to ‘cognitive reserve’ – strengthening the brain’s networks so it functions in later life.
She said: “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.”
Prof Livingston added: “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.”
The findings were based on 10,228 civil servants. Between 1985 and 2013, they were asked on six occasions about their frequency of contact with friends.
Those who saw them almost daily at 60 were 12 per cent less likely to develop dementia than peers who only saw their pals every few months.
A similar link was identified at 50 and 70 – meaning social contact at any age may well be protective, said the researchers.
It is the most robust evidence to date that social contact earlier in life could play an important role in stopping dementia.
Previous studies have reported an association – but they did not have such long follow-up times.
So these could not rule out the possibility the beginnings of cognitive decline may have caused people to see fewer people – rather than the other way around.
Study lead author Dr Andrew Sommerlad said: “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 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.”
In the UK there are about 850,000 people with dementia, a figure set to rise to 2 million by 2050. With no cure in sight there is an increasing focus on the lifestyle changes that can prevent it.
From 1997 onwards the participants completed cognitive tests. Electronic health records up until 2017 showed if they were ever diagnosed with dementia.
Social contact in mid to late life was “similarly correlated with general cognitive measures”, said the researchers.
This was after taking into account other factors connected with dementia such as education, employment and marital and socioeconomic status.
The team, working with colleagues in France, said: “The long follow-up in the present study strengthens the evidence that social engagement could protect people from dementia in the long run.”
Dr Kalpa Kharicha, head of innovation, policy and research at the Campaign to End Loneliness, said: “We welcome these findings that show the benefits of frequent social contact in late/middle age on dementia risk.
“As we found in our Be More Us Campaign, almost half of UK adults say that their busy lives stop them from connecting with other people.
“It’s important we make changes to our daily lives to ensure we take the time to connect with others.
“We need more awareness of the benefits that social wellbeing and connectedness can have to tackle social isolation, loneliness and reduce dementia risk.”
Fiona Carragher, chief policy and research officer at Alzheimer’s Society, said: “There are many factors to consider before we can confirm for definite whether social isolation is a risk factor or an early sign of the condition – but this study is a step in the right direction.
“We are proud of supporting work which helps us understand the condition better – it is only through research that we can understand true causes of dementia and how best to prevent it.
“As the number of people in the UK with dementia is set to rise to one million by 2021, we must do what we can to reduce our risk – so along with reducing your alcohol intake and stopping smoking, we encourage people across the country to get out into the sunshine, and do something active with family and friends.
“The Government’s recent emphasis on health prevention is a welcome opportunity to reduce the risk of dementia across society.
“We now need to see Ministers prioritise better support initiatives to help people reduce the risk of dementia, and look forward to seeing this when the results of the Green Paper on Prevention are published later in the year.”
Two years ago a study led by Prof Livingston found a third of dementia cases are preventable through nine lifestyle changes.
These included better education kin early life and addressing hearing loss, high blood pressure and obesity in middle age.