Social Activity, Cognitive Decline and Dementia Risk: A 20-year Prospective Cohort Study

Riccardo E. Marioni; Cecile Proust-Lima; Helene Amieva; Carol Brayne; Fiona E. Matthews; Jean-Francois Dartigues; Helene Jacqmin-Gadda


BMC Public Health. 2015;15(1089) 

In This Article


This study examined the associations between late-life measures of engagement in activities, self-assessed quality of relationships and longitudinal cognitive change and dementia onset over 20 years of follow-up. Two statistical modelling approaches were compared - a model where decline and dementia onset were modelled independently in the whole population, and an approach that categorised the population into three homogeneous underlying sub-groups.

Within the whole population, increased levels of engagement in social, physical, or intellectual pursuits were linked to increased baseline cognitive ability but not decline, and self-perception of feeling well understood was associated with a decreased linear cognitive decline. Increased levels of engagement and feeling well understood were also associated with a decreased risk of dementia in the whole sample but this relationship seems to be largely explained by marital and health status at baseline. In the sub-populations analysis, we identified a group of fast decliners with a high risk of dementia, a group of moderate decliners with a medium risk of decline and dementia, and a group of non-decliners with a low risk of dementia. None of the four social-environment variables helped to explain the heterogeneity in cognitive decline and dementia risk across the three sub-populations. There was also no evidence for baseline differences in the health and demographic variables across the three groups, with the exception of age. The group of fast decliners were, on average, slightly younger than the other two groups. The latent class model highlights sub-groups that decline faster or slower than subjects of the same age, sex and educational level. The fast-decliners group includes subjects with pathological decline compared to subjects of the same age.

There are several strengths to our analysis including the large sample size and long (20 year) follow-up of the population-based Paquid cohort, and the extensive cognitive test battery that was administered at each interview wave. Another point to highlight is the simultaneous use of the six psychometric tests, which precludes the requirement of a reference marker of decline. However, the key strength of this paper is the utility of the statistical approach, which included analyses based on both an independent and a dependent relationship between longitudinal cognitive change and dementia. The latter approach found evidence for three sub-populations within the global population that had different cognitive trajectories and risks of dementia.

A potential limitation of the analysis was the single time-point (baseline) measure of the social activity variables, which are dynamic in nature. Moreover, some of the variables that were included in the social, physical, and intellectual engagement measure might have been solitary activities - such as gardening and watching television – and so less compatible under the global banner of a social activity. Different levels of detail were also available for the various measures of social activity. For example, we had much finer detail available for the engagement marker (data from 12 questions) compared to the single question responses for network size, perceived understanding, and satisfaction with relationships. It is interesting to note that there were 157 individuals diagnosed with dementia in the non-decliners sub-group. This may have represented late-onset dementia relative to the start of the study. Indeed, this appears to be the case when we compare the mean time to dementia event in each sub-group (6.2 versus 10.5 versus 11.8 years in the fast decliners, moderate decliners, and non-decliners, respectively). Alternatively, some participants may be diagnosed with dementia despite exhibiting a relatively modest cognitive decline. A previous study in Paquid showed that this is more likely for those with low educational attainment.[26]

Placing our results in context with previous findings is not straight-forward. As mentioned in the introduction, different studies invariably measure different indices of social activity and classify them using different approaches. It is also difficult to isolate activities that rely solely on social components with no physical or cognitive elements.[4,7–11] Previous analyses undertaken in the same cohort as the present study (Paquid) found travelling, gardening, and doing odd jobs or knitting to associate with up to a 54 % decrease in risk of dementia over a 3 year period.[27] Furthermore, remaining or becoming socially/physically active over a 10 year period had up to a 49 % decrease in dementia risk over the subsequent 10 years.[28] This finding was also over and above any effect of cognitive decline over the initial 10-year period. Being satisfied with relationships and receiving more support than was given over the life-course have also been associated with a 23 % and 55 % decreased risk of dementia, respectively.[14] A recent Paquid analyses found an association between a general measure of social engagement with baseline cognitive ability but not decline in subjects without dementia,[12] and a decreased risk of dementia in those who regularly participated in board games.[29]