In almost all Westernised societies, life expectancy is increasing. Although women continue to outlive men, many people of both sexes now live well into their eighties or beyond. This increasingly aged population brings with it an increase in the problems associated with old age. One such problem is dementia.
There are many forms of dementia and several causes. Because it is an increasingly common problem, with enormous financial and emotional costs attached, dementia is the subject of much research. Researchers in Sweden have demonstrated that having contact with close friends or relatives is associated with reduced or delayed onset of dementia. The study followed 1200 non-demented people over the age of 75, for 3 years. During that time 180 of them developed dementia. Most at risk were those with poor or absent social networks.
Although the researchers could find no certain cause for these findings, it is possible that social contact may somehow stimulate the immune system, giving protection against certain types of dementia.
Experts are quick to warn that it is the quality, not the quantity, of social contact that counts. Older people who received regular visits that were seen to be unsatisfactory from relatives did not seem to be protected from dementia. As one commentator put it, ‘It’s not living alone, it's being alone, that makes the difference for some people’. If you have elderly relatives or friends, stay in touch and make sure they really know how much you care about them.
Last Reviewed: 07 December 2007