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Benefits of Social Engagement on Dementia Onset

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Ready to get engaged….socially? Social engagement, which is defined as the maintenance of many social connections and a high level of participation in social activities, could in fact reduce declining cognition. Why not go out with some friends a couple of times a week, enroll in a group exercise class, or get out and volunteer with your community? Results from a number of studies have shown that participating in cognitively stimulating activities and having satisfying relationships, as well as a large number of social contacts can reduce the risk of cognitive decline into the early onset of dementia. On the other side of the spectrum, a low level of social engagement may be a reliable indicator of the progression into dementia. Thus, social engagement may not only reduce the risk of cognitive decline, but may more importantly be a predictor of dementia onset.

This study, called The Honolulu-Asia Aging Study focused on whether mid and/or late life social engagement was associated with risk of incident dementia, and additionally investigated change in social engagement levels between mid and late life as a potential predictor of onset of dementia. In order to assess the relationships between social engagement and dementia, the researchers followed 2,513 men (as a continuation of the Honolulu Heart Program) and measured their social engagement levels twice, with twenty years in between the first examination (midlife) and the second (late life). The factors involved in measuring social engagement were the following: 1) marital status, 2) living arrangement, 3) participation in social, political, or community groups, 4a) participation in social events with coworkers (specific to midlife assessment) or 4b) number of face to face telephone contacts with close friends per month (late life assessment), and 5) the existence of a confident relationship. Both midlife and late life scores were summed, and then categorized as low, medium low, medium high or high levels of social engagement.

As noted above, the researchers additionally studied the trend into low levels of social engagement during the later years in life. To assess this, they took the social engagement factors that matched up in the mid life assessment and late life assessment, and then categorized the participants as having either increasing, decreasing, or consistently high or low levels of social engagement.

 Results from the measurements taken showed increasing risk of onset of dementia in those with low levels of social engagement in their late life. Interestingly, there was no association between midlife levels of social engagement and late life dementia. Moreover, participants whose social engagement levels decreased between midlife and late life were significantly more likely to develop dementia than those whose levels stayed stable (regardless of low or high social engagement).

What I think is important to emphasize from this study are the following two points. For one, it is late life, rather than midlife social engagement, that can have a positive or negative influence on cognitive decline. This means that it is not too late for someone in late life to take proactive measures to become more socially engaged. Second, a decrease in social engagement from midlife into late life can forecast the onset of dementia, and thus if this trend is noticed earlier, perhaps cognitive decline can be slowed in a more effective manner.

Saczynski J. S., Pfeifer L. A., Masaki K., Korf E. S. C., Laurin D., White L.,Launer L. J. (2006). The Effect of Social Engagement on Incident Dementia: The Honolulu-Asia Aging Study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 163(5): 433–440.

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  1. December 3rd, 2013 at 10:55 | #1

    I think that this study provides insight into a phenomenon I had never truly thought about. Although, I think it is extremely hard to say there is a cause and effect relationship here, I can see how increased sociability and interpersonal connection could reduce the risk of dementia. I am not entirely sold that social engagement is a sole predictor of this, however. I feel like there are several personality characteristics that align with an individual who has more social involvement and it is a combination of the actual social engagement and personality characteristics that might serve as a better conglomerate of predictors for reduced risk of dementia. This is entirely speculative, but I also am curious if those who are at a higher risk of dementia, i.e. those with less social engagement in ‘late life’ have confounding factors responsible for their reduced social interaction. For instance, perhaps their spouse or children have passed away leading them to depression, thereby decreased social interaction, and subsequent dementia.

  2. March 18th, 2014 at 20:37 | #2

    I thought this study was really good. It was presented in a interesting and engaging manner and I took away knowledge that I previously did not have. I thought this article did well explaining that the benefits of socialization can have in an elderly person and I thought the concept of low socialization as a precursor to Alzheimer’s was interesting. While mid life socialization patterns alone may not be predictive of Alzheimer’s I was a little confused to the total point the author was making and if mid life socialization is not a predictive factor, then what other cognitive factors are there that could help determine a precursor to Alzheimer’s? Another question I had was does the study factor in other mental diseases like depression or anxiety as a reason for why elders are less social and does that influence them in developing Alzheimer’s? Overall I thought this study and blog was very good but I would like to have a little more background information along with the explanation.

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