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Social connections may improve your chances of a healthier brain and living longer

8 Apr 2024

Find out more about StepUp for Research’s work into ageing and dementia on their website, www.stepupforageingresearch.org.au

StepUp for Ageing Research March 2024

Are you debating whether to message your friend for a catchup this weekend? Maybe you are considering whether to pop in on your folks? The decision could have implications for your brain health, with a recent meta-analysis study suggesting that spending time with the people we love can reduce our risk of cognitive decline and help us live longer[1].

Worldwide sample

A large team of Australian researchers pooled the data from 13 longitudinal ageing studies, resulting in nearly 40,000 participants. The sample had a mean age of 70 years and was followed-up an average three and a bit years. The 13 studies included low, middle, and high-income countries across Australia, North America, Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa. The sample was richer than previous meta-analyses, which have mainly focused on North America and Europe.

The researchers were interested in the quality and the type of social connection, i.e. romantic, family and friends, or a community group, as well as the function of the connection, such as providing social support or a space to confide. Next, the researchers looked at whether the participants developed mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or dementia, or passed away, during the studies.

Different aspects of social connections are associated with healthy ageing benefits

Being married or in a relationship, or weekly family or friend interactions or community group engagements, were associated with a lower risk of MCI. Monthly or weekly interactions with family and friends, and having someone to talk to, reduced the risk of developing dementia. Only in Asian cohorts, was being married or in a relationship associated with a reduced risk of dementia. Living with others, participating in community activities, and having a confidante, reduced the risk of dying.

These findings are consistent with, and extend upon, previous research. So why are social connections so good for us? It could be that close relationships buffer us from stress. It could be that loved ones, encourage us to take on healthy behaviours, such as going for walk together[2].

Causality dilemma

The authors controlled for variables which could influence outcomes, including age, sex, education level, lifestyle factors and other chronic diseases. Participants who had MCI or dementia at the beginning of the studies were also excluded from the analysis. However, the authors acknowledged the “chicken or the egg” scenario, in that it is possible that participants had some undetected cognitive or physical health issues; and that these impacted their social interactions, rather than the other way around. Nonetheless, sending that message or making that visit could reduce risk of cognitive decline and help us live longer.


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