Dementia is a syndrome that manifests as progressive impairments in memory, thinking and behaviour that negatively affect a person’s ability to live their normal lives. It is most commongly caused by Alzheimer’s disease and primarily affects senior citizens, with the risk of developing the condition doubling every five years after passing the age of 65. According to the Alzheimer’s Research UK, it is estimated that some 944,000 individuals across the UK currently live with dementia — a figure expected to reach 1.6 million by 2050.
In their study, sociologist of health Professor Ming Wen of the University of Utah and her colleagues analysed the cognitive abilities and lifestyles of nearly 2,200 US adults aged between 62–90.
Of these subjects, the team noted, 972 had previously been diagnosed with so-called mild cognitive impairment.
This is a disorder in which patients experience some memory loss or other form of cognitive problem — such as, for example, with language processing — but not to such an extent that it interferes with normal daily life.
Mild cognitive impairment is often, but not always, a precursor to full-blown dementia.
Following up with the participants five years later, the researchers found that 22 percent of the individuals that had initially been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment had improved such that their brain function was now considered to be normal.
Moreover, the team reported, there was a significant association between those whose cognitive abilities had been restored and those who reported living more active social lives.
At the same time, 66 percent of the mild cognitive impairment cases did show no signs of improvement and a further 12 percent had seen their condition deteriorate into dementia.
However, the findings offer promise for those senior adults who have perhaps seen their memory and mental capacity decline slightly as a result of the social distancing and isolation made necessary to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Prof Wen was “happily surprised” by the findings of the study, she told the Telegraph.
She added: “Most people would think that this is a one-way direction, [that] once you are cognitively impaired there’s no way to come back.
“But we found that even if you were cognitively impaired five years ago, if you actively participate in social interactions […] then possibly a proportion of these people will get better and become normal again, which is really exciting.”
Activities that could help promote a healthy social life, the sociologist explained, might include spending time with friends, getting out and meeting new people, volunteering or attending religious services.
In fact, the team said, their findings suggest that increasing one’s social activity by just one event each year could increase a person’s chances of reversing cognitive decline by up to a whopping 41 percent — with stronger effects coming from more regular socialising.
However, Prof Wen said: “Anything is better than nothing.”
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The full findings of the study were presented during the 2022 Alzheimer’s Research UK Conference, which was held in Brighton from March 1–2.
Alzheimer’s Research UK director Dr Susan Kohlhaas — who was not involved in the study — told the Telegraph that “a decline in memory and thinking is caused by a complex mix of age, genetics and lifestyle factors.
She added: “We know keeping connected is a pillar of good brain health.
“Midlife is increasingly being identified as a key time in people’s lives when we can act.”