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According to new research from University College London (UCL), 50-year-olds and 60-year-olds that remain socially active significantly lower their risk of developing dementia later on in life.

Published in the journal PLOS Medicine, the study highlights the importance of staying socially active to reduce isolation and loneliness, and ultimately reduce their risk of developing dementia.

“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,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Andrew Sommerlad (UCL Psychiatry).

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“Here we’ve found that 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.”

The research team used data from the Whitehall II study, tracking 10,228 participants who had been asked on six occasions between 1985 and 2013 about their frequency of social contact with friends and relatives. The same participants also completed cognitive testing from 1997 onwards, and researchers referred to the study subjects’ electronic health records up until 2017 to see if they were ever diagnosed with dementia.

For the analysis, UCL focused on the relationships between social contact at age 50, 60 and 70, and subsequent incidence of dementia, and whether social contact was linked to cognitive decline.

The findings revealed that someone who saw friends almost daily at age 60 was 12 percent less likely to develop dementia than someone who only saw one or two friends every few months. UCL researchers found similarly strong associations between social contact at ages 50 and 70 and subsequent dementia.

“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,” explained Senior Author Professor Gill Livingston (UCL Psychiatry).

Dr Sara Imarisio, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, commented: “Evidence suggests one in three cases of dementia could be down to risk factors potentially in our power to change. There is strong evidence that what’s good for your heart is good for your brain, but the social connections you maintain in later life may also play a role in shaping brain health.

“It’s promising that the government’s recent Prevention Green Paper references the need to support active ageing and highlights the importance of connected communities for maintaining good brain health.

“With an ageing population in the UK and many people facing later life alone, initiatives to encourage people to stay connected to their families, friends and communities as they age will bring important health benefits. In today’s busy world, we can all take a moment to be a friendly face, stop for a chat and make a difference to the lives of those around us.”

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