Elderly people who show the early signs of dementia could reverse their cognitive issues with an improved social life, new research shows. Scientists at the University of Utah in the US have found face-to-fact contact with friends and family, and taking part in group activities can help brain function return to normal.
The benefits can be seen even if mental decline began years before, highlighting the importance of choosing a care home with lots of opportunities to socialise. Maintaining relationships was also seen to have a protective effect against developing dementia in the first place.
Some 2,200 people aged between 62 and 90 took part in the research, which analysed their brain function, lifestyles and social habits. Mild cognitive impairment, which is often a precursor to dementia, had already been identified in 972 of the participants at the beginning of the study.
Five years into the research, 22 per cent of those with mild cognitive issues had improved and could be classed as having normal brain function. A further 12 per cent had progressed to dementia and 66 per cent had stayed the same.
Participants with higher levels of social interaction were found to be the most likely to have improved. Just one event a year is enough to improve the likelihood of decline with 41 per cent, the study suggested.
Lead researcher Ming Wen said: “Most people would think that this is a one-way direction: once you are cognitively impaired there's no way to come back.
“But we found that even if you were cognitively impaired five years ago, if you actively participate in social interactions – activities such as volunteering, meeting with friends, socialising, attending religious services – then possibly a proportion of these people will get better and become normal again, which is really exciting.”
Alzheimer’s Research UK highlighted that being connected is a pillar of brain health and that mid-life has been repeatedly identified as a key time to act. While more research is required to delve deeper into the findings of the study, it shows how a few simple changes can have a positive impact.
Professor Wen was presenting the research at the Alzheimer’s UK Research Conference, which was held in Brighton recently. The paper has not yet been published or peer reviewed, but adds to the growing body of work on dementia, its possible causes and ways to combat it.