Approximately 500,000 Australians are living with dementia. There’s a complex patchwork of factors that go into a person’s risk of dementia later in life – genetics, physical health and medical history all play a role. However, there’s a growing body of evidence which highlights the importance of ‘social health’ in dementia prevention.
Social health encompasses things like loneliness, isolation and social connection, all of which may become more challenging as people age. Previous research has found that about four per cent of preventable dementia can be associated with social isolation. Now a major review has identified the kinds of social connection that are most important, and where men and women may vary in terms of their social health and risk of dementia.
The researchers collected data from 13 major longitudinal cohort studies (where groups of people are tracked over time) from around the world, including Australia – with more than 40,000 people reassessed within 15 years. The main outcomes the researchers were interested in were the rate of change in global cognition and cognitive domain scores over time, as well as gender differences in those outcomes.
They found there were several key types of social connection that appeared to reduce one’s risk of cognitive decline over time. Living with other people; being in a long-term relationship or marriage; and never feeling lonely were linked to slower rates of cognitive decline. The authors suggested several mechanisms to explain this effect. Close social connections with others could provide stimulation and need to exercise one’s memory or language skills. They might also reduce stress levels which are linked to cognitive decline. In addition, connection to others can also let others spot when you need help or are in ill-health, which can again help in preventing cognitive decline.
Men and women were broadly similar across the studies, although women also saw a benefit from being in a relationship around their memory, which men did not.