NORWICH, England — Paying visits to grandma and grandpa does a lot more than brighten their days. A recent study finds a strong support system of family and friends can also reduce an elderly person’s risk of developing dementia.
Conversely, being surrounded by negative people can actually raise a senior’s odds of suffering from the debilitating brain condition.
Researchers at the University of East Anglia presented findings from a long-term study they conducted with a team of scientists from three other schools in the United Kingdom on the effects of positive and negative social support in elderly populations.
“It is well known that having a rich network of close relationships, including being married and having adult children, is related to a reduced risk of cognitive decline and developing dementia,” says co-author Dr. Mizanur Khondoker, a senior lecturer in medical statistics, in a university news release. “However, a relationship or social connection that does not work well can be a source of intense interpersonal stress, which may have a negative impact on both physical and mental health of older adults.”
The study was conducted over a 10-year period and involved 10,055 individuals (5,475 men and 4,580 women) who were dementia-free at the start of the study. Researchers tracked six items from a health and lifestyle questionnaire for people aged 50 and older.
They first gathered baseline information about the participants’ current level of positive and negative social support. Participants ranked these social support items from 1 to 4, with 4 being the highest score. Participants were every two years throughout the study, measuring changes in their positive and negative social support experiences against the baseline.
Rates of dementia were also determined over the 10-year study period, either by information from the participants themselves or by other chosen reporters. Over the course of the study, 3.4 percent of participants developed some form of dementia.
Researchers saw the impact of positive and negative social interactions over the course of the study. They found that a one-point increase in positive social support reduced the risk of developing dementia by 17%.
Positive social support equates to more than just having important people in one’s life, such as spouses, partners, children or other immediate family. It means that those people are reliable, approachable and understanding with their loved one.
“It is not only the quantity of social connections, but the quality of those connections may be an important factor affecting older people’s cognitive health.” says Khondoker.
Unfortunately, researchers found that the effects of negative social support are even more profound. For participants experiencing a one-point increase in negative social support, the risk of dementia shot up 31%.
Negative social support occurs when someone has close relationships with people who are fault-finding, irritating and unreliable.
Researchers say this study affirms what we know about the importance of social relationships in overall aging. They say additional research is needed to understand the possible links between social support experiences and the development of dementia.
“Specifically for health and social care practice, the research highlights the value of thinking about social relationship issues in individuals vulnerable to dementia, while pointing toward specific ways of potentially modifying risk,” adds co-author Andrew Steptoe, of University College London.
“Our results will add to the impetus underlying local and national efforts to help strengthen the social relationships of older people, many of whom are isolated and lonely,” he concludes.
The full study was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.