June 8, 2011

Warding Off Dementia: Reach Out and Touch Someone

Recent research suggests that social interaction is one of the most important keys to warding off dementia. Researchers aren't certain what happens in the brain to produce the positive effects seen among the more socially engaged, but they say it's clear that close relationships and large social networks have a very positive impact on memory and cognitive function as people age.

Here's a quick rundown on some of the recent research results:
  • Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health used data collected from 1998 to 2004 from 16,000 U.S. residents to determine if there was a connection between social interaction and dementia. The results were impressive. People who interacted the most -- with family, friends and others -- were less likely to show a decline in memory. This protective effect was particularly strong among the people who were most at risk for dementia: those who had fewer than 12 years of education and people with blood circulation problems, like high blood pressure or stroke.
  • Kaiser Permanente looked at the effect of social networks among more than 2,200 female members of its California HMO. The participants were at least 78 years old when the study began in 2001.  None showed any signs of dementia at that time. They were given follow-up interviews over the next four years.The researchers found that women with large social networks were less likely to develop dementia than more isolated women. And this pattern proved true even when researchers controlled for the women's age, education, depression, and other health conditions. Women who had daily contact with friends and family cut their risk of dementia by almost half.
  • Warning: Cat lovers skip this one!  Researchers at Oxford University found that highly social animals, like dogs, have developed bigger brains in relation to their body size than more socially isolated species, like cats. Their research indicates that being sociable is associated with greater brain power -- something we dog lovers have long suspected.
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