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PLoS Med. 2019 Aug 2;16(8):e1002862. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1002862. eCollection 2019 Aug.

Association of social contact with dementia and cognition: 28-year follow-up of the Whitehall II cohort study.

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Division of Psychiatry, University College London, London, United Kingdom.
Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust, London, United Kingdom.
Epidemiology of Ageing and Neurodegenerative Diseases, Inserm U1153, Université de Paris, Paris, France.
Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, London, United Kingdom.



There is need to identify targets for preventing or delaying dementia. Social contact is a potential target for clinical and public health studies, but previous observational studies had short follow-up, making findings susceptible to reverse causation bias. We therefore examined the association of social contact with subsequent incident dementia and cognition with 28 years' follow-up.


We conducted a retrospective analysis of the Whitehall II longitudinal prospective cohort study of employees of London civil service departments, aged 35-55 at baseline assessment in 1985-1988 and followed to 2017. Social contact was measured six times through a self-report questionnaire about frequency of contact with non-cohabiting relatives and friends. Dementia status was ascertained from three linked clinical and mortality databases, and cognition was assessed five times using tests of verbal memory, verbal fluency, and reasoning. Cox regression models with inverse probability weighting to account for attrition and missingness examined the association between social contact at age 50, 60, and 70 years and subsequent incident dementia. Mixed linear models examined the association of midlife social contact between 45 and 55 years and cognitive trajectory during the subsequent 14 years. Analyses were adjusted for age, sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, education, health behaviours, employment status, and marital status. Of 10,308 Whitehall II study participants, 10,228 provided social contact data (mean age 44.9 years [standard deviation (SD) 6.1 years] at baseline; 33.1% female; 89.1% white ethnicity). More frequent social contact at age 60 years was associated with lower dementia risk (hazard ratio [HR] for each SD higher social contact frequency = 0.88 [95% CI 0.79, 0.98], p = 0.02); effect size of the association of social contact at 50 or 70 years with dementia was similar (0.92 [95% CI 0.83, 1.02], p = 0.13 and 0.91 [95% CI 0.78, 1.06], p = 0.23, respectively) but not statistically significant. The association between social contact and incident dementia was driven by contact with friends (HR = 0.90 [95% CI 0.81, 1.00], p = 0.05), but no association was found for contact with relatives. More frequent social contact during midlife was associated with better subsequent cognitive trajectory: global cognitive function was 0.07 (95% CI 0.03, 0.11), p = 0.002 SDs higher for those with the highest versus lowest tertile of social contact frequency, and this difference was maintained over 14 years follow-up. Results were consistent in a series of post hoc analyses, designed to assess potential biases. A limitation of our study is ascertainment of dementia status from electronic health records rather than in-person assessment of diagnostic status, with the possibility that milder dementia cases were more likely to be missed.


Findings from this study suggest a protective effect of social contact against dementia and that more frequent contact confers higher cognitive reserve, although it is possible that the ability to maintain more social contact may be a marker of cognitive reserve. Future intervention studies should seek to examine whether improving social contact frequency is feasible, acceptable, and efficacious in changing cognitive outcomes.

Conflict of interest statement

I have read the journal’s policy and the authors of this manuscript have the following competing interests: AS was funded by a fellowship from the Wellcome Trust for the submitted work. AS, GLe, and GLi are supported by the University College London Hospitals’ National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre, and GLi was supported in part by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (CLAHRC) North Thames at Bart’s Health NHS Trust.

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