Dementia: The ‘most immediate’ lifestyle habit that could cut your risk of mental decline

Dr Hilary issues warning about missed dementia diagnoses

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Official figures last week showed that dementia is killing 125 women every day, and caused more female deaths last year than COVID-19. As dementia continues to grow to pandemic proportions, there is growing concern that isolation could significantly exacerbate signs of cognitive decline. Doctor Emer MacSweeney, neuroradiologist at Re:Cognition Health explains why socialising might be key to warding off signs of the debilitating condition.

A report by Alzheimer’s UK has argued that dementia-sufferers were hit hardest during the pandemic, with NHS figures for England showing a sharp fall in assessment and monitoring of dementia.

There’s been a widely held belief that a lack of social interaction during the pandemic may have exacerbated the condition of many sufferers.

Doctor MacSweeney said: “For people who had mild symptoms at the beginning of lockdown, their lack of socialising and routine exacerbated the development of early symptoms.

“Those with mild symptoms most likely suffered more due to a lack of social interaction.”

READ MORE: How to live longer: Key lifestyle tip that ‘acts as a buffer to effects of brain ageing’

A 2019 study that tracked more than 10,000 people, found that seeing friends almost daily at age 60 was associated with a 12 percent lower likelihood of developing dementia in later life, compared with those who saw one or two friends every few months.

Interestingly, seeing relatives did not show the same beneficial association.

The study contributed to growing evidence that social activities could protect people from dementia in the long-run.

The researchers suggested that using the brain for memory and language during social contact could also build a so-called “cognitive reserve”.

They also believe that more than 30 percent of the risk of dementia is down to lifestyle factors, which are highly modifiable.

Furthermore, there may also be overlapping factors at play in the development of dementia, as some research has highlighted that mental health conditions, such anxiety and depression, are significant risk factors.

Doctor MacSweeney explained: “There’s a correlation between socialising and a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s.

It’s mediated through a number of different things. “The most immediate thing is socialising, per se, as it will decrease anxiety and low mood. Anxiety can also adversely affect one’s cognition.”

Doctor MacSweeney also highlighted that social behaviour is also associated with healthy behaviour, and that since our society is built on layers of complex interactions, there are numerous ways in which one can prosper socially.

She explained: “If you are socialising, you are more likely to have a routine, socialising means many different things, including volunteering, visiting places of worship, going to the cinema, reading news and current affairs, and going to museums.

“There are many more peripheral activities involved when meeting up with someone, first of all, you have to prep and plan.

“Our brain is a muscle, and just like any other muscle in the body, if you don’t use it you lose it.”

Slowing cognitive declineBeyond the legal restrictions that have prevented social interaction over the past year, Doctor MacSweeney highlighted that technology may also be taking away precious time from socialising.

She explained: “The digital revolution is taking important time away from social, face-to-face interaction.

“There’s a whole raft of emotions involved in talking to people, therefore it is better to pick up the phone and give someone a call, as opposed to just sending a text.

“People who adhere to these healthy strategies show strong evidence of slowing the development of cognitive dysfunction.”

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