Visiting elderly parents is an important factor in their mental health and even helps to ward off dementia, it has been found. The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) discovered that families with “reliable, approachable and understanding” relationships are key to preventing Alzheimer’s disease.
While having spouses and children that are caring is beneficial, having a bad relationship or no contact with grown up children can have the opposite effect. Those who are critical of their parents and unreliable “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’s authors stated.
The research was carried out over a significant timeframe, with 10,055 assessed in 2002 and deemed Alzheimer’s-free. At intervals of two years, they were then interviewed again over the course of a decade and their cognitive decline reported. They also completed questionnaires to establish the level of social support from family.
Answering six questions and ranking them on a scale of one to four allowed researchers to discern which category they fitted into. Just one point more in the social support scale correlated to a 17 per cent drop in the instantaneous risk of developing dementia, the study found. In the opposite direction, a negative support score of just one point difference saw the risk rise by 31 per cent.
Between 2004-2012, 3.4 per cent of the study’s participants developed some form of dementia. The research sample was made up of 5,475 men and 4,580 women, all of whom were over the age of 50 and living in England.
Dr Mizanur Khondoker, a senior lecturer in medical statistics at UEA's Norwich Medical School, said: “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.
“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.”
This latest research, which was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, adds to the body of evidence on social relationships and dementia risk. It underlines the importance of the quality of interactions, as opposed to quantity and is something that all children with elderly relatives should bear in mind.
Scientists from the University of East Anglia (UEA), University College London (UCL), London Metropolitan University, and the University of Nottingham all worked together on the study. It highlights the importance of a collaborative approach in tackling Alzheimer’s and dementia.
At present, there is no cure for the conditions and the best approach is to lead a healthy lifestyle in a bid to stave off the onset. As more is known about Alzheimer’s and dementia, it is hoped that medication can be developed to reverse the effects. In the meantime, the number of people suffering in the UK is increasing all the time and expected to reach two million by 2051.