You probably know that physical activity can help prevent conditions like heart disease and diabetes. But did you know that social activity can help to prevent dementia?
A recent study from scientists at the University of Pittsburgh studied a group of older people and found that that the brain cells of those who socialised more had a better microstructural integrity – in other words, the cells are less likely to die off.
When brain cells die off, dementia typically follows, so these findings suggest that “prescribing” socialisation for older people could provide a way of warding off the disease.
The researchers behind the study say they understand that finding ways to socialise is harder than ever at the moment, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions. But they feel so strongly about their findings, they have stressed that older people should continue to look for ways of socialising safely, so as to maintain good brain health.
Other ways to socialise
Some of the ways that older people can connect with others in a safe and balanced way include getting together with family over a video call, meeting a friend for a socially distanced walk, or even looking into the possibility of a live-in carer or companion. Socialising activates areas of the brain that help us to make decisions and to recognise familiar faces and emotions – and even a moderate level of social engagement makes a difference, so it’s really important to try.
The scientists behind the study also suggested that doctors should start to formally prescribe socialising. In fact, this is something that a lot of GPs in the UK are already doing. Many practices in England and Wales now refer patients who they believe to be socially isolated to a link worker or befriender – a “social prescription”. These community connectors can offer basic social support to people through phone calls and socially distanced visits, as well as helping older people to make contact with local groups and services that they may not previously have known about, or had the confidence to try.
Diffusion Tensor Imaging MRI
The Pittsburgh study, published in October 2020, was conducted before the pandemic and used information from 293 people, with an average age of 83. Participants answered questions about their social engagement – whether they took part in community activities, met friends and neighbours, or volunteered regularly, for example – and underwent an MRI scan of their brain cells. It’s the first study to use Diffusion Tensor Imaging MRI to conduct such an evaluation, and the results from this sensitive equipment have been able to give the researchers a greater insight into the relationships between socialisation and brain cells.
There is no cure for dementia, so prevention through better brain health is vital. Thanks to studies like this one, we are learning that the answer doesn’t always lie in complicated or expensive treatments. Taking part in social activity doesn’t have to cost anything, and there are no side-effects.