New study investigates the gender-specific differences in the relationship between social activity and dementia risk


Poor social health has been identified as a potentially modifiable risk factor for dementia. Yet little research has been conducted to examine how the link between social activities and dementia might vary between men and women. A new study by Htet Lin Htun and colleagues, published in May 2024 in the Journal of Gerontology, focused on analysing the relationship between different types of social activities and dementia risk, and looked specifically at how this relationship may be different based on people’s gender. The study involved Australians who lived in the community and were 70 or older. 

A total of 9,936 participants were enrolled in the study and were followed up over time. They were asked to complete questionnaires about the social activities they engaged in. Data about dementia diagnosis was also gathered. The association between social activities and dementia was analysed over a median period of 6.4 years and adjusted for the effects of age, education, baseline global cognition and depression. The study results revealed some gender-specific results. In particular, for men, interpersonal social support (in this case, having nine or more relatives that they felt close enough to call for help) was associated with a reduced risk of developing dementia. For women, providing care for a person with an illness or a disability was associated with decreased dementia risk.

Surprisingly and unlike men, women with five friends or more whom they felt comfortable discussing private matters were more likely to develop dementia (compared to having two friends or less). No other significant association between social activities and dementia risk was found. The authors comment that these findings may be partially explained by existing gender roles and societal expectations. In particular, men may often get more support from relatives due to their traditional roles as ‘providers and protectors’. Women, on the other hand, are expected to maintain wide social networks and engage in informal caring duties. Balancing multiple social roles could lead to increased stress and less meaningful relationships for women. The researchers also found that many social activities previously linked to dementia no longer showed a significant connection to dementia risk when adjusting for the factors that the study took into account. It is postulated that this might be because most of the study participants were socially active, with only a very small fraction experiencing social isolation or loneliness. 

Social Activities and Risk of Dementia in Community-Dwelling Older People: Gender-Specific Findings From a Prospective Cohort Study - PMC (