Deborah Brauser

March 31, 2017

VIENNA, Austria — Although past studies have shown that social relationships are important during the aging process, new research suggests that cognitive benefits may differ between types of social roles — at least in older women.

More research from the Australian Women's Healthy Ageing Project (WHAP) showed that, as expected, meaningful activities, such as volunteerism, were significantly associated with better memory scores.

One surprise for the investigators, though, was that living alone was also a significant factor in better cognitive performance.

"Basically, we found that participating in very productive roles promoted cognition, especially the ability to recall events and lists," lead author, Katherine Burn, PhD candidate, University of Melbourne, Australia, told Medscape Medical News.

Katherine Burn

She added that the cohabitation finding "might be due to other dynamics. Just because you live with others doesn't mean you're socially active. Overall, it's about getting out there and doing more active roles."

Burn presented the findings here at the International Conference on Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Diseases and Related Neurological Disorders (AD/PD) 2017.

Investigating Common Roles

"There's been a lot of research, particularly over the last decade, that has shown that being more socially active helps prevent the risk for developing dementia. But there's been recent research showing that that's not always the case with certain roles," said Burn.

In fact, the researchers note that in one study, providing personal care to a spouse with dementia led to decreased cognitive performance, while another showed that babysitting grandchildren can be both a blessing and a curse when it comes to overall cognitive health.

"Research in this area is still growing [and] more work is needed to investigate the effects of other social roles that are common in later life," they write.

The new analysis examined 187 healthy women participating in WHAP, who were about 70 years of age at baseline. All filled out questionnaires on a variety of social roles, including grandparenting, paid and unpaid employment, cohabitation, and belonging to community clubs.

In addition, a "comprehensive neuropsychological battery" was administered, as was the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale. Fasting blood samples were obtained to assess for apolipoprotein Ɛ4 (apoE) genotype.  

After adjustment for multiple factors, including apoE status, results showed that paid vs unpaid employment and volunteer work vs not volunteering were associated with significantly higher verbal episodic memory (P = .01 and .04, respectively).

On the other hand, living with at least one other person was associated with significantly lower global cognition scores vs living alone (P = .01). No other social role had a significant association with cognition.

Burn stressed that the positive and negative effects found in their study would have been lost if they'd examined social engagement as a sum variable. But she added that more detailed research is needed, especially into possible mechanisms, before recommendations about specific social activities can be made.

In addition, the investigators are conducting a 4-y ear follow-up with the current study participants. "We've finished up a 2-years follow-up, so we're hoping to publish some longitudinal data very soon," said Burn.

"Useful to Keep in Mind"

Asked for comment, Miriam Eimil Ortiz, MD, neurologist at Hospital de Torrejon de Ardoz, Spain, told Medscape Medical News that although she can agree that some social roles can be detrimental for older individuals, she's a bit skeptical that living with someone else should be included in that grouping.

"Most studies say that social engagement is better for cognitive health, so I don't know,” she said. “But it's certainly interesting."

When asked about this, Burn speculated that older women living alone may be more independent and free to participate in more activities than if they were needed at home to care for a disabled spouse. "Living with another person doesn't necessarily mean they're a good source of social stimulation."

Dr Ortiz reported that in her country, Spain, "there is some sexism in the social roles of those who are 70, 80 years old." Women there often continue scheduling, organizing, and engaging in activities into their later years. So cognitive problems become easily apparent early on, she said.

"However, as soon as men stop working many of them have no hobbies or other activities. So they can go on with problems for quite a while and nobody realizes until the symptoms become quite severe," said Dr Ortiz.

So looking into the effects of specific social activities "as almost a biomarker for cognitive health could be quite useful to keep in mind."

Funding for WHAP was provided by the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Ramaciotti Foundation, the Australian Healthy Ageing Organization, the Brain Foundation, the Alzheimer's Association, the Australian Menopausal Society, Bayer Healthcare, the Shepherd Foundation, the Scobie and Claire Mackinnon Foundation, the Collier Trust Fund, the J.O. and J.R. Wicking Trust, and the Mason Foundation. Dr Burn and Dr Ortiz have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

International Conference on Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Diseases and Related Neurological Disorders (AD/PD) 2017. Abstract 190. Presented March 30, 2017.

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