Can friends protect you from dementia?

by Rebecca Israel, MS. Reviewed by Charles Li, MD

June 30, 2020

  • Seniors who reported elevated feelings of loneliness were more likely to develop dementia.

  • Alzheimer’s disease, specifically, was also associated with feelings of loneliness.

  • Feelings of loneliness stemmed from low-quality friendships as opposed to a lack of social interaction.

friends and dementia title

Dementia is a condition that describes various symptoms of cognitive decline. Older adults who develop dementia struggle with memory, communication, and decision-making skills. Alzheimer’s Disease is categorized as a type of dementia.

Source: CDC Dementia

The risk of dementia is largely influenced by health. behaviors. Scientists have identified loneliness as a risk factor for dementia. In this article, we discuss how friendships may protect against dementia.

Dementia

What is the association between loneliness and risk of dementia?

Source: Feelings of loneliness, but not social isolation, predict dementia onset: results from the Amsterdam Study of the Elderly (AMSTEL)

Researchers started by recruiting 2173 seniors from retirement facilities to participant in a 3-year study. Over the study period, participants were assessed for loneliness and reported dementia status.

The odds of dementia were 64% higher in seniors with feelings of loneliness than other seniors.

The odds of dementia were 64% higher in seniors with feelings of loneliness than other seniors. Loneliness was accompanied by dissatisfaction in social relationships and social needs. In other words, feelings of loneliness stemmed from low-quality friendships as opposed to a lack of social interaction.

Alzheimer’s disease

What is the association between loneliness and risk of Alzheimer's disease?

Source: Loneliness and Risk of Alzheimer Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. In this condition, dementia symptoms are attributed to the death of brain cells. To measure the association between Alzheimer’s disease and loneliness, 823 seniors from retirement facilities around Chicago were surveyed and followed over 4 years. Researchers collected data on dementia development and self-reported loneliness.

risk of clinical AD increased by approximately 51% for each point on the loneliness scale

The risk of Alzheimer’s disease increased dramatically alongside the loneliness scale. For every point of loneliness, their risk of Alzheimer’s disease increased by 51%.

Similar to the previous study, Alzheimer’s disease risk was affected by the quality of friendships. It is not enough to have numerous social interactions, but the interactions should be with whom you feel a close and healthy bond.

Why this matters now

Fewer Americans have close friends with which they can have deep conversations.

Source: Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades

Over the last few decades, close friendships have become less common in the US. A study compared surveys about close friends in 1985 and 2004. In 1985, 36% of Americans had no close friends outside of their family. In 2004, more than half, 53%, reported no close friends outside of the family. The number of close friends declined from 2.94 to 2.08.

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