Professor Henry Brodaty and Professor Perminder Sachdev, co-directors, centre for healthy brain ageing (CHeBA) give some tips about socialising for better brain health.
People who have more social contacts are less likely to develop dementia and will generally be affected by Alzheimer’s disease about a decade later than their less-social peers. This could just be reverse causality. The pathological brain changes involved in Alzheimer’s disease gradually build over the course of the 20 to 30 years before the disease becomes apparent, so it could be that social withdrawal occurs in many people with Alzheimer’s disease because of subtle brain changes prior to diagnosis.
On the other hand, the dementia risk reduction associated with a larger social network or social engagement, which is shown by some epidemiological studies, is fairly large. The effect of increasing social engagement on delaying dementia disease progression could exceed that of current FDA-approved medications.
The positive effects of social engagement on cognitive function have been demonstrated even at the level of biomarkers. Recent MRI studies found associations between the size and complexity of real-world social networks and the density of grey matter and amygdala volume – both markers of healthier brains.
Even for those people who develop Alzheimer’s disease, larger social networks may modify the level of symptoms. Non-human research suggests that social network size could actually contribute to changes both in brain structure and function, providing further support for causal links.
For some, networking at cocktail parties is akin to living hell. But there are many ways of connecting for better mental health.
Meaningful engagement can be through volunteering, joining an exercise group, joining a club or playing bridge. These are especially important messages in the 21st century as more people live alone, particularly in later life.
Find out more about CHeBA at www.cheba.unsw.edu.au.
Professor Brodaty is an Honorary Medical Advisor to Alzheimer’s Australia NSW and Professor Sachdev is a Medical Advisor to Alzheimer’s Australia.