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Vital to keep connections

A new study has found keeping up social connections may help reduce your risk of developing dementia.

The study, published in journal Plos Medicine in August, followed over 10,000 people for almost 30 years monitoring their social contact with friends and relatives as well as testing for cognitive decline. The study is the latest research to suggest maintaining social connections in mid and later life can help prevent dementia, yet the importance of social connectedness to health has been known for some time now.

How does maintaining friendships help to stave off dementia? Like learning something new, it is thought the way people use their brain when engaging face to face with friends can build up new connections between brain cells, providing a safeguard against cognitive decline. It creates a kind of cognitive reserve which can help delay the onset of cognitive decline later in life. Interestingly, the same results are not replicated in interactions with relatives.

Social interaction provides a person with purpose and a sense of belonging. Research shows it can improve our physical and emotional health, and contribute to the quality and length of our lives. In fact, you could say a person’s health and wellbeing relies on retaining social connections, yet as we get older too often those connections can be lost.

It is easy to become socially isolated. Many factors can influence this, such as the popularity of social media which instead of helping people to feel more connected than ever, will often have the opposite effect. Divorce can result in people losing friendships formed over decades, as friends side with one ex-partner over another.

Retirement from the workforce is a huge milestone for many people, and it is also a time when people lose connections they have built over many years. Friendships made at work often don’t survive outside of the office. Men in particular are considered more at risk of having low levels of connection, or no close friends outside the home, at the point of retirement.

The onset of health conditions in mid and late life can contribute to a person withdrawing from their social circles. Injury can cause a person to stop participating in a previously enjoyed activity or sport, only to never return. Hearing loss is a common reason for a person to stop attending social events or competing in team sports, due to embarrassment at being unable to understand the conversations around them.

The older we get, the harder it can become to form new, genuine friendships.

In September new guidelines were released for GPs in Australia that will help them recommend lifestyle changes to their patients, to assist in reducing their risk of developing dementia. One of the key messages is around increasing social participation to help reduce a person’s risk of dementia. The guidelines were developed by the Dementia Centre for Research Collaboration and are based on ten years of research. The hope is the new guidelines will go some way towards reducing the number of people being diagnosed with dementia in Australia in the future, by providing evidence-based guidance to GPs on modifiable risk factors.

One of the ways you can increase your social connections, whether or not you are still working, is by volunteering. The health impacts of volunteering are well documented – it reduces stress, gives a sense purpose and helps people to feel more engaged. According to Volunteering Australia, people who volunteer in Australia are happier, healthier and sleep better than those who do not volunteer. Sustained volunteering is also associated with better mental health.

There are plenty of other ways to increase your social connections outside of volunteering, such as joining a sporting club or taking up a new hobby. Of all the advice we can give about risk reduction and dementia, this is one that will probably provide you with the most enjoyment.

Maintain your social connections:

  • Connect, or re-connect, with your neighbours
  • Volunteer
  • Join a gym or sporting club
  • Take a up a new hobby with a community group, or rediscover an activity you used to enjoy before work and family commitments took up all your spare time
  • Join your local Men’s Shed, Probus, Lions or Rotary Club
  • Get a dog and walk it regularly. There is an unspoken camaraderie among people who regularly meet at the park with their dogs, and animals make great conversation starters.

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