April 28, 2006

Social Networks May Help With Alzheimer’s Disease

photo of a happy elderly couple

Staying in touch with close friends and family members may actually help protect you from the damaging effects of Alzheimer's disease (AD), according to a new study funded by NIH's National Institute on Aging.

Studies in older people have shown that social networks seem to reduce the risk of a wide variety of health problems, including mental impairment. But AD is a physical problem in the brain. It comes about when nerve cells in the brain stop working, lose connections with other nerve cells and die. The physical damage it causes can be measured in the brains of people after their death.

Dr. David A. Bennett and his colleagues from the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago set out to understand the relationship between social networks and physical changes in the brain caused by AD. They did clinical evaluations and 21 tests for memory and other mental functions in a study of more than 1,100 elderly people. The participants were also asked about the number of children, family and friends they had and how often they interacted with them. When participants passed away, their brains were removed and analyzed for physical evidence of Alzheimer's disease.

The study, published in The Lancet Neurology, outlines the researchers' analysis from the first 89 people in the study who've died. They found that the larger the size of a person's social network, the less a given amount of AD damage in the brain affected mental test scores. This was true even when the AD damage was severe.

This study doesn't prove that social networks can stave off the effects of AD. It may be that the better you can use the reserves in your brain, the better you are at maintaining social networks. But social networks may help you use what you've got more efficiently. There are also plenty of other good reasons to make an effort to stay as well connected with friends and family as you can.

Related Links