Dementia is an irreversible neurodegenerative brain disease characterised by the death of brain cells, which leads to a progressive decline in memory and cognitive abilities such as thinking, language, and learning capacity.
Outlook for dementia in the UK
According to Public Health England, the diagnosed prevalence of dementia in the 65 years and older population was 4.3% in 2018 and its prevalence is expected to increase in the future. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, and GlobalData epidemiologists forecast an increase in total prevalent cases in the UK from around 570,000 cases in 2018 to 675,000 cases in 2026 at an annual growth rate of 2.3%.
According to the UK’s Office of National Statistics, dementia was a leading cause of death in 2018, accounting for 12.8% of all registered deaths. Due to the ageing population in the UK, cases of dementia will continue to rise in the near future, creating a huge financial and social burden for the country. Thus, minimising the risk of dementia in the elderly population is a high priority. A recently published study has shown the risk of low social contact on dementia. According to the August 2019 study by Andrew Sommerlad and colleagues published in the journal PLOS Medicine, maintaining social contact at age 60 years was associated with lower dementia risk.
This was a retrospective analysis of the Whitehall II longitudinal prospective cohort study of employees of London civil service departments, ages 35–55 years. These employees were followed for 28 years from 1988‒2017. Based on social contact data from this study, more frequent social contact was associated with a 12% lower risk of dementia. Interestingly, maintaining social contact with friends had a beneficial effect but there was no association for contact with relatives. This could indicate that the cognitive effort involved in keeping in contact with friends builds a “cognitive reserve.” It is also assumed that spending time with friends is more enjoyable and lowers stress.
In Western societies, most of the population live in cities and the family units are getting smaller. Older people are especially vulnerable to loneliness and isolation with limited contact with friends and relatives.
According to Age UK, two million people over the age of 75 years live alone. As loneliness is a growing problem and is a risk factor for dementia, older people should be encouraged to maintain social contact and all necessary support should be made available to facilitate it. Digital technology and social media could be very useful to maintain contact with the family and friends.