“When you are just getting out and interacting with people, you are using your brain a lot.” So says Claudia Kawas, Professor of Neurology at the University of California, Irvine.
She strongly suggests we speak to as many people outside of our own households as often as we can.
There’s a lot of evidence to support her advice, but none of it proves an active social life is good for the brain. That may be about to change. Now a thorough and very well conducted new study goes a long way to provide the proof we’ve been missing until now.
It’s time to take notice and get chatting.
In 2015 a research group from the Netherlands reviewed 19 studies that looked at social relationships and the risk of dementia. The conclusion they came to after analyzing all the data is that dementia is linked to a lack of social interaction.
Three years later Australian psychiatrists carried out their own review. This included 33 studies involving over two million participants.
Like the Dutch scientists, they also concluded that poor social engagement was associated with an increased risk of dementia. They suggested health authorities target social isolation and disengagement as a way of preventing the condition.
From these studies, it sure looks like being with people is good for our brains, while being lonely and isolated is not. But actually, it’s not so simple.
Cause or Effect?
The main problem with all the research conducted so far is that social impairment itself is typical of dementia.
It’s one of the most common symptoms of the disease.
People may feel less inclined to meet friends, visit family or interact with strangers when they have the disease or in the years leading up to it, even before symptoms of cognitive decline show themselves. That’s because pathological changes in the brain take place over many years.
To provide really good evidence that a lack of social engagement is a cause of dementia and not just linked to it, researchers would have to follow a group of initially healthy participants over several decades.
So that’s just what a team from University College London decided to do.
A 28-Year Follow-Up Study
They used data from a study called Whitehall II, established between 1985 and 1988. It was collected from 10,228 London-based office staff (two-thirds men, one-third women), aged 35–55, working in 20 civil service departments.
Between 1985 and 2013 each participant was asked six times how frequently they met with friends and relatives.
Also, beginning in 1997, the cognitive abilities of the participants were tested on five separate occasions ending in 2016. These were tests of verbal fluency and short-term verbal memory. The researchers also assessed verbal and mathematical reasoning.
In addition, the researchers examined the participants’ electronic health records to see if a diagnosis of dementia had ever been made. This continued until 2017.
In conducting the analysis, the researchers took into account the participants’ age, gender, ethnicity, education, socio-economic status, employment and marital status, whether they smoked, how much alcohol they consumed, and their physical activity.
Builds Cognitive Reserve
“We found that more frequent midlife social contact was associated with higher subsequent cognitive performance,” said the authors, “[and] that greater frequency of social contact at age 60 years was associated with lower risk of developing dementia.”
Seeing friends almost daily at age 60 provided a 12% reduction in the chances of developing dementia compared to those who saw only one or two friends every few months.
Because the study was conducted over a period of almost 30 years, it strengthens the evidence that social engagement can protect people from dementia.
Commenting on their findings, senior author Professor Gill Livingston 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.”
Her comments were supported by Tara Spires-Jones, a professor of neurodegeneration at the University of Edinburgh who was not involved in the study.
“Learning new things builds connections between brain cells, and so does social contact,” wrote Prof. Spires-Jones. “The biology underlying this study is that the people who are socially active keep their brains better connected. If you have a better connected network in your brain, it can resist pathology for longer.”
As I said, it’s time to get chatting.