June 20, 2008 -- Elderly women who maintain close friendships and strong family ties are less likely to develop dementia than women who are less sociable, according to new research funded by the National Institute on Aging.
The latest findings, published in this week's American Journal of Public Health, add to the growing body of evidence suggesting that strong social networks can protect against dementia.
Previous studies have showed that adults who live alone or who have no social ties have a much higher risk for cognitive impairment than those who have more social connections.
Dementia is a decline in cognitive (thinking) function that greatly affects one's day-to-day activities and relationships. Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia.
For the current study, researchers at the department of research and evaluation at Kaiser Permanente Southern California interviewed more than 2,000 women aged 78 and older by telephone and reviewed their medical records. The women were dementia-free in 2001 and completed at least one follow-up interview in 2002 through 2005.
The women answered questions regarding their social networks, such as how often they saw or heard from their family or friends, who they could call on for help or private matters, and how often they had visits, phone calls, and emails from their social contacts.
The researchers discovered that women with large social networks were 26% less likely to develop dementia during the study period, although the study didn't establish a direct link.
"Our findings suggest that larger social networks have a protective influence on cognitive function among elderly women. Future studies should explore which aspects of social networks are associated with dementia risk and maintenance of cognitive health," the researchers write in the journal report.