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People living in larger households are at less risk of dying from dementia and could stave off the progression of the disease for longer, according to a global study conducted by researchers in evolutionary medicine at the University of Adelaide.

The study looked at variables in living standards and conditions for people over 60 years from more than 180 countries worldwide to measure the significance of factors. These include GDP, urbanisation, age, and household size, which found that people living in larger households or with families fared better than those living alone.

Biomedicine researcher and PhD candidate supervisor at the University of Adelaide and lead on the project, Dr Wenpeng You said the correlation between household size and reduced risk of the worst impacts of dementia is quite strong.

“Independent of ageing, urbanisation, and GDP, we found large households protect against dementia mortality,” Dr You said.

“It’s a significant finding in informing how we plan care and living services for people as they age because it shows that human factors – relationships, a sense of connection and purpose, encouragement and praise, meaningful engagement with others – are all quite important in combatting the progress of dementia.”

Dementia is one of the biggest challenges for the health sector in the 21st century, with an estimated cost globally of AU$1.160 trillion.

Emeritus Professor Maciej Henneberg, the study’s senior author, says humans have evolved to live in families and communities.

“We are one of the few species that have adapted over thousands of years to rely on extended family groupings from cooperative breeding, and then evolved alloparental care, until shaped for flourishing in small communities,” Professor Hennenberg said.

“In the stretch back across that evolution, it has really only been a very short period where we have moved away from that. We are actually not well-adapted to the contemporary trends of small families, personal space and individualism.”

He said there were some very practical benefits to living with family or other household residents.

“There are usually regular mealtimes, there is conversation, people to check to see if you have taken your medications, and family members encouraging regular activity.

“That engagement, when it is positive, stimulates the production of oxytocin, often dubbed the happiness hormone, and that has been shown to have a positive effect on physiological wellbeing by protecting cardio-vascular systems associated with vascular dementia and may exert a beneficial slow-down on dementia development,” he said.