BY SARAH OWENS
Great relationships are good for the soul, and new research suggests they may be good for the brain, too. A study published online on May 3 in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease found that older adults who reported feeling positively supported by friends and family had a reduced risk of developing dementia over a 10-year period.
Relationship Quantity – and Quality
Positive social relationships are strongly linked to good health. Having close friends and family can boost mood, help ward off depression and anxiety, and even lower the risk of heart problems. Studies also show that having a close network of friends and family can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
Existing research has mostly examined the link between health and relationship quantity, or the number of friends study participants have. To learn more, researchers at University College London in England decided to measure the effect of relationship quality. Specifically, they wondered, do strong social ties have a long-term effect on dementia risk?
Measuring Social Support
Researchers followed 10,055 people aged 50 years and older who were participating in the long-running English Longitudinal Study of Aging and did not have dementia.
At the beginning of the study period, participants completed a questionnaire about how supported they felt by different people in their social networks, including friends, spouses, parents, children, and other immediate family members. The questions included, "How much do they really understand the way you feel about things?" "How much can you rely on them if you have a serious problem?" "How much can you open up to them if you need to talk about your worries?" and "How much do they criticize you?"
Ten years later, the researchers used doctors' diagnoses taken from health records to identify all cases of dementia—340 participants or 3.4 percent—since the beginning of the study.
Strong Social Support Equals Lower Dementia Risk
People who felt more strongly supported by those in their social networks had a lower risk of developing dementia.
Digging deeper, the researchers found that people who received strong social support from their children had the lowest risk of developing dementia. Conversely, those who received negative feedback from multiple sources—from both spouses and children, or from both family and friends—had the greatest increased risk of dementia.
The findings, the study authors conclude, suggest that supportive social relationships can play a major role in maintaining brain health and in warding off dementia. They also suggest that doctors and other health care professionals should encourage people who are vulnerable to dementia to pursue social activities and strengthen their relationships.
Read our story "Life Lines," from our December 2016/January 2017 issue, to learn how to join a social support group–or how to start one of your own: bit.ly/NN-LifeLines.
For more about how social ties help the brain, read "The Ties that Bind": bit.ly/NN-TiesThatBind.