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Despite the belief that early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is crucial, a new study by scientists at Rutgers University suggests that a person’s social network and social support do not increase following a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and related dementias, which may be especially problematic for disadvantaged populations who have fewer resources.

The researchers used data from the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study to compare adults who received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia in 2014 with those who did not. They measured social relationships two years after a diagnosis, looking at social and informal engagement, such as meeting and talking on the phone, and formal engagement, such as volunteering, attending educational programs, sports games or social events with clubs or nonreligious organizations. A social network included the number of close ties a person had, and social support was perceived as either positive or negative.

The findings indicate that receiving a diagnosis reduces time talking on the phone, face-to-face contact and attending sports and other social events. In response to those results, study authors suggested that practitioners and policymakers be aware of the consequences, identify strategies to alleviate the negative effect of receiving a diagnosis and look for ways to mobilize support networks after a diagnosis.

“Social relationships are an essential feature of our quality of life and can buffer against cognitive decline,” said study co-author Addam Reynolds, a doctoral candidate at the Rutgers School of Social Work-New Brunswick. “Given the lack of a cure for these diseases, we must focus on ways people can maintain or improve their quality of life after receiving a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.”

He added that it may be especially important to promote informal social engagement — face-to-face and telephone contact — which is often more accessible than formal social engagement. Full findings were published in the journal Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders.