Older and middle-aged adults who are socially active appear to be at lower risk of developing dementia, according to new research.

“This finding could feed into strategies to reduce everyone’s risk of developing dementia, adding yet another reason to promote connected communities and find ways to reduce isolation and loneliness,” said the study’s lead author, Andrew Sommerlad, Ph.D., of University College London. Study results were published in PLOS Medicine.

The research team used data from a study of 10,228 people who had been asked six times between 1985 and 2013 about the frequency of their social contact with friends and relatives. These individuals also completed cognitive tests beginning in 1997, and the researchers referred to their electronic health records until 2017 to see whether they ever had received dementia diagnoses. The lengthy followup compared with previous studies strengthens the evidence, the investigators said.

Increased social contact at age 60, the researchers found, is associated with a significantly lower risk of developing dementia later in life. Someone who saw his or her friends almost daily at age 60 was 12% less likely to develop dementia than someone who only saw one or two friends every few months, according to study results.

The investigators said they found similarly strong associations between social contact at ages 50 and 70 and subsequent development of dementia. Those associations did not reach statistical significance, but the authors said that social contact at any age may well have a similar effect on reducing dementia risk.

How could social contact reduce dementia risk? The researchers have some ideas.

“People who are socially engaged are exercising cognitive skills such as memory and language, which may help them to develop cognitive reserve,” said senior author Gill Livingston, M.D. “While it may not stop their brains from changing, cognitive reserve could help people cope better with the effects of age and delay any symptoms of dementia,” she added.

Spending more time with friends also could be good for a person’s mental wellbeing and may correlate with their being physically active, both of which also can reduce the risk of developing dementia, Livington said.