Active Mind


October 11, 2023

The new study Social participation and risk of developing dementia, written by one of Brain Health Network’s advisors Professor Gill Livingston, has shown that people who see their friends and family on a regular basis are less likely to go on to develop dementia in later life. 

The research indicates that people who were more socially active as they got older, were between 30 and 50% less likely to be diagnosed with the condition.

What’s more, you don’t need a big circle of friends or a large family to reap the abundance of brain health benefits. Writing in the journal Nature Aging, the researchers said it’s not about having lots of friends, it’s about making the time to see the ones you do have.

“There is nothing as demanding for our brains as being with other people,” says Dr Andrew Sommerlad, who led the research. “You have to use memory and language and humour and empathy and all sorts of brain functions and so it seems the best training for the brain that anyone can have.”

Dr Sommerlad of University College London, Professor Gill Livingston, one of Brain Health Network’s advisors, and colleagues in Finland, the US, France, New Zealand and Japan analysed over 150 existing studies on socialising and dementia.

They wanted to know if spending time with others helps ward off dementia and, if so, how it does it.

Key studies include one from the UK in which more than 10,000 middle-aged adults had their health tracked for almost 30 years.

It found that those who saw friends and family frequently were less likely to go on to develop dementia – and that spending time with friends was particularly beneficial. Someone who saw their friends most days when they were 60 was 12% less likely to develop dementia than someone who only saw one or two friends every few months. 

Another study tracked adults in the US for ten years. It found that those who said they were lonely were 50% more likely to develop dementia.

So, what is it about socialising that is so good for our brain health? Researchers have several theories. One is that we look after ourselves better when we are surrounded by friends and family. For instance, as those who are closest to us, they might encourage us to eat better, stop smoking or even give us the nudge we need to see the doctor about a niggling problem. Plus, the joy they bring can help stress, which is linked to the ageing of the brain, ebb away.

Another theory is that being socially active helps people to build their cognitive reserve – the ability to withstand the damage that accumulates in the brain as dementia develops.

The greater a person’s cognitive reserve, the more they are thought to be protected against age-related memory changes and the onset of dementia.

It’s difficult to absolutely prove that socialising is good for brain health – the trials needed to do this wouldn’t be practical. However, the existing evidence is too strong to ignore, says Dr Sommerlad.

He says the secret is to do things you enjoy. This could be seeing your grandkids, meeting a work friend for coffee or getting back into an old hobby.

Face-to-face contact is thought to give the brain the biggest boost but phone calls, emails and social media are likely to be beneficial too.

If you find it hard to make new friends, the Global Council on Brain Health suggests starting small. This could be by sharing a smile a day with someone, practising a random act of kindness or simply showing interest in somebody by asking how they are.