Having a busier social life could help to ward off dementia by protecting the grey matter of the brain, a study suggests.
Grey matter is full of nerves and is essential for sending messages around the brain but it shrinks with age, causing brain cells to die and the organ to become less efficient.
University of Pittsburgh researchers asked 300 people with an average age of 83 about their social engagement, including whether they lived with other people.
High scores were awarded to people who did things like go to church, volunteer or get together with family, friends or neighbours at least once a week.
People who spent more time alone and were inactive scored lower on the tests, the results showed.
People who socialised at a greater level had healthier grey matter in regions of the brain that are linked with the development of dementia.
These regions are needed for recognising faces, forming memories and making emotional decisions.
If socialising keeps grey matter intact, it could prevent or delay dementia, a disease for which there is no cure, the researchers said.
The findings, reported today in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, suggests social activities should be ‘prescribed’ to ward off dementia, just like prescribing exercise to prevent diabetes or heart disease.
Regular socialising could help to ward off dementia by protecting grey matter of the brain, a study suggests (stock photo)
Stimulus of any kind such as smell or vision goes to the brain for further processing. ‘Social stimuli’ is processed by specific brain regions known as the ‘social brain’, the parts of which are pictured
However, this may be difficult in the Covid-19 era, when people are told to limit their social contacts to avoid catching the coronavirus.
Dr Cynthia Felix, a geriatrician and epidemiologist, led the study.
She said: ‘Our data were collected before the Covid-19 pandemic, but I believe our findings are particularly important right now, since a one-size-fits-all social isolation of all older adults may place them at risk for conditions such as dementia.
‘Older adults should know it is important for their brain health that they still seek out social engagement in safe and balanced ways during the pandemic.’
The study involved 293 elderly people from an ongoing study which looks for possible early warning signs of declining health in people getting older.
The participants received a sensitive brain scan called a Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) MRI.
This scanning technique looks at nerve structures in the brain and helps diagnose conditions like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis.
In this study, the DTI measured the strength of brain cells used for social engagement – the first time this has been done.
LIVING IN A POLLUTED AREA RAISES THE RISK OF DEMENTIA, FINDS MAJOR STUDY
Living in a polluted area significantly raises the risk of dementia, according to the world’s largest study on the issue.
Scientists found that the higher the level of toxic air in a postcode, the more likely its residents are to be hospitalised with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.
The research showed that any air pollution – even within ‘safe’ limits – is linked to neurological diseases.
The study by Harvard University, published yesterday in the Lancet Planetary Health journal, drew on data from 63 million adults.
It is the strongest evidence that dirty urban air can damage the brain.
Air pollution is already known to cause lung disease, asthma and heart disease, cutting short around 40,000 lives a year in the UK.
The study analysed the link between progressive neurological conditions and tiny pollution particles known as PM2.5, which form as a result of burning diesel, petrol, wood and coal.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that the amount of PM2.5 pollution must not exceed annual average levels of 10 micrograms of toxic particle per cubic metre of air.
Experts compared the health records of 63 million over-65s in America with air pollution data for their postcode.
The participants were followed over 17 years, during which time one million developed Parkinson’s disease and 3.4 million dementia.
Dr Felix and colleagues asked each participant to describe their social activities, which were then scored on a scale devised by the team.
High scores were awarded to people who did things like play board games, go to the cinema, travel long distances, attend classes, lectures or adult education events and participate in church or other community activities.
They were also scored high if they got together with children, friends, relatives or neighbours at least once a week, volunteered or worked, or were married or living with other people.
The study, supported by National Institutes of Health, found greater social engagement scores were related to better structural integrity of grey matter in these older adults.
Social engagement with at least one other person, even in a small amount, activates specific brain regions needed to recognize familiar faces and emotions, make decisions and feel rewarded, the researchers said.
Stimulus of any kind such as smell or vision goes to the brain for further processing, so that a human being can identify a particular smell or picture.
‘Social stimuli’ is processed by specific brain regions known as the ‘social brain’, which create a response. These include decision making and response to a familiar face.
The researchers said: ‘The brain grey matter regions we found have known roles in dementia.
‘Since greater social engagement is associated with greater microstructural integrity of these regions, their brain cellular health is maintained, and therefore dementia can be prevented or delayed.’
But more research is needed to understand whether those who socialise have healthier brains, or if those who have healthier brain socialise more.
Grey matter consists of nerve cells that coordinate information from different senses. White matter, on the other hand, is mostly made of nerves called axons that transmit signals.
Grey matter is susceptible to breaking down during ageing, but can be preserved by some activities.
Previous research carried out by Imperial College London suggests grey matter begins to shrink during middle age and is related to cell death. White matter also appears to start declining at around 40 years old.
Research has found a correlation between people who have dementia and reduced grey matter volume in the brain.
Dr Felix said studies in the future could look at whether certain activities are better for prevention of dementia.
In the past, speaking more than one language, exercising, and practising mindfulness have been linked to improved brain health related to a delay in dementia.
WHAT IS DEMENTIA? THE KILLER DISEASE THAT ROBS SUFFERERS OF THEIR MEMORIES
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of neurological disorders
A GLOBAL CONCERN
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of progressive neurological disorders (those affecting the brain) which impact memory, thinking and behaviour.
There are many different types of dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common.
Some people may have a combination of types of dementia.
Regardless of which type is diagnosed, each person will experience their dementia in their own unique way.
Dementia is a global concern but it is most often seen in wealthier countries, where people are likely to live into very old age.
HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE AFFECTED?
The Alzheimer’s Society reports there are more than 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK today, of which more than 500,000 have Alzheimer’s.
It is estimated that the number of people living with dementia in the UK by 2025 will rise to over 1 million.
In the US, it’s estimated there are 5.5 million Alzheimer’s sufferers. A similar percentage rise is expected in the coming years.
As a person’s age increases, so does the risk of them developing dementia.
Rates of diagnosis are improving but many people with dementia are thought to still be undiagnosed.
IS THERE A CURE?
Currently there is no cure for dementia.
But new drugs can slow down its progression and the earlier it is spotted the more effective treatments are.
Source: Alzheimer’s Society