We are looking at the connection between social isolation and dementia risk for many years.
Social isolation especially in seniors is considered one of the public health risks that affect many people.
It puts them at RISK for dementia and other severe medical conditions.
The NASEM (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine) released a report stating that almost a fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered socially isolated.
Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Dementia
Many elderly people are at an increased risk of social isolation because of various factors like:
- Living alone
- Loss of family and friends
- Hearing loss
- Chronic illness
- Lack of interests in social activities they once enjoyed
Studies Looking into Social Isolation and Dementia Risk
Several studies have shown that there is a connection between increased dementia risk and social isolation.
An example of this was a behavioral rodent study that was conducted in Belgium.
The research team discovered that mice that were in isolation for four weeks during adolescence ended up with a specific dementia-like phenotype.
It compromised both cognitive and non-cognitive domains when compared to the animals that were socially housed.
The mice also displayed a lifelong impairment in a memory task.
A cohort study on the “Association of social isolation, loneliness, and genetic risk with the incidence of dementia: UK Biobank” also concluded that socially isolated persons are at risk of dementia at all levels of genetic risk.
This was after observing 144,074 men and women with a mean age of 64.1 from the UK Biobank study.
The participants were recruited between 2006-2010.
8.6% of the participants reported that they were socially isolated. During a follow-up, 0.9% of the participants were diagnosed with dementia.
Social isolation was the MAIN culprit associated with increased dementia risk.
Loniless biggest risk for Alzheimer’s?
On the flip side, a new study from the Netherlands reported that “feeling lonely” and not “being alone” might be considered a major risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. One of the most common causes of dementia.
This study was published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry. For the study, researchers observed 2,173 seniors aged between 65-86.
At the beginning of the study, none of the participants had dementia.
The professionals assessed the participants’ degree of isolation including whether they lived alone or lacked a partner, spouse, or network of friends alongside how lonely they reported they felt.
About half of the participants lived alone, and 1 in 5 reported feeling lonely.
After controlling factors like concurrent medical issues like cardiovascular disease or depression and socioeconomic status, researchers found that the participants who felt lonely were more likely to develop dementia.
The ones who were socially ISOLATED but did not feel lonely were not at increased risk of developing dementia.
The researchers stated that there needs to be a better understanding of why individuals feel lonely as this may help them identify vulnerable persons to come up with interventions that will IMPROVE the outcome in seniors who are at risk of dementia.
Can Social Activity Buffer Against Decline?
When discussing social isolation and dementia risk, we find it important to pinpoint some of the things that can help reduce the risk.
For one, MAINTAINING HIGH-QUALITY relationships is key to protecting brain health from the negative effects of isolation.
Studies show that seniors who feel more satisfied with their relationships have a 23% lower dementia risk.
Older adults who feel that their relationships are supportive have a 55% lower risk of developing dementia compared to the ones who feel unsupported or dissatisfied in their relationships.
Maintaining social activities can also buffer against the decline in thinking abilities even for people who live alone or are experiencing signs of beta-amyloid accumulation in the brain.
One of the reasons this happens is that if a person is cultivating and maintaining strong social ties, it can help them cope better with stress.
Individuals who feel better able to cope with challenges or bounce back after stressful events normally show less tau protein build-up in the brain.
What Action can a Person Experiencing Social Isolation Take?
When experiencing social isolation, an individual should consult a doctor.
The physician can assess an individual’s risk of social isolation and if needed connect the affected individual to community resources for assistance.
National Organizations like Area Agencies on Aging, National Council on Aging, Eldercare Locator, and AARP can also be helpful.
Other strategies that may help fight social isolation include:
Reaching out to friends and family even if it is just a phone call or text.
Dr. Miller states that making contact with someone can improve well-being and it should be part of an individual’s daily routine.
2. Joining a club
Affected individuals should look for clubs that interest them such as book clubs, collectors’ clubs, or jazz clubs, etc.
Volunteering at an organization they support can also help.
3. Adopting a pet
Persons who can mentally and physically care for pets should get them as they make wonderful companions who offer numerous physical and emotional benefits.
Human beings are generally social in nature and high-quality social relationships can help people live healthier and longer lives.
There is growing evidence that there is a link between social isolation and dementia risk.
While more studies need to be conducted on this subject, it is something that people need to take seriously in a bid to reduce the number of people who end up developing dementia in old age.
Bonus: What is Social Isolation
Social isolation is the lack of social connection. We can also describe it as an objective measure of solitude that may or may not be distressing.
Although it is not easy to precisely measure social isolation, there is evidence that older adults who are isolated socially put their health at risk.
In line with this, some recent studies uncovered that:
- Social isolation was associated with almost 50% increase in developing dementia.
- Social isolation increases a person’s risk of premature death from all causes significantly. This is a risk that may rival those of obesity, physical inactivity, and smoking.
- Poor social relationships characterized by social isolation were linked to increased link in heart disease and stroke (29% and 32% respectively).
- Seniors who are socially isolated record increased emergency room and physician visits.
Social isolation among older adults also leads to poor performances on tests of thinking abilities. Especially in situations when an individual is required to process information fast.