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Strong Social Ties Reduce Seniors' Risk of Dementia

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WebMD Health News

April 13, 2000 (New York) -- A new study suggests an added benefit to having many close friends: A strong social support network may lower the risk of developing age-related memory loss, or dementia.

In the study of more than 1,200 people 75 and older living in Stockholm, Sweden, participants with few close social ties had a 60% higher risk of developing dementia than their more socially active counterparts. The findings appear in the April 15 issue of the medical journal The Lancet.

The study's findings show that, for many older people, it's a simple case of "use it or lose it," meaning that an extensive social network can delay the onset of dementia by providing emotional and intellectual stimulation, says researcher Laura Fratigioni, PhD. Fratigioni is with the Stockholm Gerontology Research Center.

"The most obvious implication of this study will be the necessity to rethink all public health policy for the elderly," Fratigioni says in a statement issued by the journal. "For years in most Western countries, the priority has been given to home services in order to avoid institutionalization. The consequences are often that old people live alone and isolated for most of the time."

Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe the loss of intellectual function, which most commonly occurs late in life and which affects an estimated 4 million to 5 million Americans. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer's disease, accounting for as many as 75% of all cases.

When the Swedish study began, none of the participants had dementia. But after a follow-up period averaging three years, almost 200 had developed dementia, with many suffering from Alzheimer's disease. To determine the strength of the participants' social networks, Fratigioni and colleagues looked at their marital status, living arrangements, contact with their children, and friendships.

The researchers found that being single and living alone were the most important risk factors for dementia. Infrequent contact with friends and relatives did not raise the risk of developing dementia if the participants saw such interactions as satisfying, suggesting that satisfaction with relationships is more important than the frequency of contact.

Additionally, the risk of dementia was higher among participants who reported poor relationships with their children than among those who did not have children, the study showed.

The new findings "suggest that [social] networks may be protective [against dementia] because of the social engagement and satisfaction they provide," Lisa F. Berkman, PhD, of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, writes in an editorial accompanying the study. "Social engagement probably challenges people to communicate effectively and to participate in complex interpersonal exchanges."

"Intuitively, the findings make a lot of sense," Neil Buckholtz, PhD, chief of the dementias and aging branch of the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Md., tells WebMD. "Keeping active and engaging in the world should be helpful in terms of keeping cognitive function going."

For families who are dealing with caring for an elderly loved one with dementia, David A. Olson, MD, a behavioral neurologist at Georgia Regional Hospital in Atlanta and a medical advisor to WebMD, advises finding day programs.

"They may also want to intensively investigate the daily activity schedules of nursing homes when deciding on the appropriate placement for their relatives requiring institutional settings," he says.

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