Strong Social Ties Reduce Seniors' Risk of Dementia
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
"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
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
"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.