A study of more than 10,000 men and women by four universities, including the University of East Anglia, looked at how ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ support from family and friends can impact on the development of dementia on those seen to be at risk. On the plus side, it said that where families were supportive that could have beneficial effects in helping ward off or reduce the impact of the condition, and even a minor increase in support could reduce the risk by up to 17%.
Age Space has long believed that supportive families are vital all round when it comes to helping people as they get older and the study found that positive support was characterised by having a reliable, approachable and understanding relationship with spouses or partners, children and other immediate family. But equally negative behaviour, such as being critical, unreliable and annoying, could do more harm than good and increase the risk. In fact even a small amount of negative behaviour can increase the risk by 31%.
The importance of strong positive networks
Announcing the findings, Dr Mizanur Khondoker, a senior lecturer in medical statistics at UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “It is well known that having a rich network of close relationships, including being married and having adult children, is related to a reduced risk of cognitive decline and developing dementia. “However, a relationship or social connection that does not work well can be a source of intense interpersonal stress, which may have a negative impact on both physical and mental health of older adults. It is not only the quantity of social connections, but the quality of those connections may be an important factor affecting older people’s cognitive health.
“This work is a step toward better understanding of the impact of social relationships on dementia risk, but further research is needed to better establish any potential causal mechanisms that may drive these associations.”
UCL Prof Andrew Steptoe said: “Our findings add to the growing evidence of the relevance of social relationships for cognitive health in older age. Specifically for health and social care practice, the research highlights the value of thinking about social relationship issues in individuals vulnerable to dementia, while pointing toward specific ways of potentially modifying risk. “Our results will add to the impetus underlying local and national efforts to help strengthen the social relationships of older people, many of whom are isolated and lonely.”
The 10-year follow-up study was carried out by a team of researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA), University College London (UCL), London Metropolitan University and the University of Nottingham.
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Our section on Dementia and Alzheimer’s might also be useful to you.