Can socialising protect against dementia?

A group of older people playing cards together outside
6 August 2019

A study has found people who socialised more with friends at the age of 60 were less likely to develop dementia later in life. We look behind the headlines. 

News reports claimed that socialising every day in midlife could help protect against dementia, although it is not clear whether the link could be due to other factors.

The research

Researchers at University College London used information from over 10,000 people who answered questions about their social contact with friends and family between 1985 and 2013. People in the study also completed five cognitive tests between 1997 and 2016, assessing their verbal memory, verbal fluency, and reasoning. Their health records were used to find out whether they went on to develop dementia.

The study did not distinguish between the types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease (the most common type) or vascular dementia (the second most common type). Vascular dementia is caused by reduced blood supply to the brain, usually as a result of narrowed blood vessels, a stroke or a series of mini-strokes (TIA’s).

The participants were taking part in the Whitehall II study, part-funded by the BHF, which followed the health of London civil servants from the mid-1980s until 2017.

The researchers found that people who regularly socialised with friends at the age of 60 had a lower risk of developing dementia, but socialising with relatives wasn’t linked to a difference in risk.

When they studied social contact at the ages of 50 and 70, the researchers found lower risks of dementia in people who socialised more, however these findings were not strong enough to be statistically significant.

How good was the research?

A strength of the study is that people answered detailed questions on six occasions over 18 years about their social contact, including how regularly they saw family, friends or acquaintances.

A drawback is that researchers then relied on people’s health records to determine whether they had developed dementia. This data, however, may not include missed cases, as people who are more socially isolated might be less likely to be diagnosed with dementia even if they are living with the condition.

The findings suggested that having more social contact with friends could help to protect against dementia.

The findings suggested that having more social contact with friends could help to protect against dementia. However this was an observational study meaning that it can only reveal an association between socialising and having a lower dementia risk, not whether socialising is directly responsible for lowering someone’s risk.

It’s possible, for instance, that being more socially isolated could be an early sign of dementia rather than a factor that increases the risk of developing it. The researchers noted that the long duration of the study meant this was less likely to be the case.

Another potential explanation for the results could be that people who see friends more regularly are in turn more physically active, and physical activity is known to reduce dementia risk. However the researchers did take into account how many hours of moderate or vigorous exercise people did per week, as well as other factors such as age, sex and socioeconomic status.

Marital status was also taken into account, although it is unclear whether participants included social contact with spouses when answering questions about their social contact with friends and relatives.

How the story was covered

The Sun’s headline encouraged readers to head to the pub to stave off dementia: “MIND ALIVE, NO.5 Playing bingo or going to the pub with pals ‘can help protect against dementia’”. However drinking alcohol is known to increase the risk of dementia, so going to a café would have been a better suggestion.

While playing bingo or going to the pub (for a soft drink) might suit some people, others might prefer to see friends at home, and the study didn’t differentiate between the potential benefits of social contact at home or outside.

The Sun also claimed that 60-year-olds who saw friends or family daily were 12 per cent less likely to develop dementia ‘compared with loners’

The Sun also claimed that 60-year-olds who saw friends or family daily were 12 per cent less likely to develop dementia ‘compared with loners’. However the study found that social contact with friends – not family – is what counted, and the 12 per cent drop was compared to people who saw one or two friends every few months.

The Daily Mail’s headline took a leap too far by declaring the cause of the findings: “Being socially active in your 60s and seeing your friends every day slashes your risk of dementia 'because it keeps you active and happy'”. This type of observational study can’t prove the cause of any links, although one of the authors of the study suggested that socialising makes use of memory and language skills, which “could help people cope better with the effects of age and delay any symptoms of dementia”.

The Mail also said: “The scientists couldn't confirm a link existed for people who saw their friends regularly at age 50 or 70 – but believe it's likely to have a similar effect.” In fact, the study reported: “The non-robust findings using social contact at 50 and 70 years indicate the need for further research.”

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