Often overlooked in dementia research is the protective factor of belonging to a community. It’s the common denominator (often unremarked), whether comparing lower dementia rates in the Earth’s ‘blue zones,’ or in a wild Amazonian tribe in Brazil. Now a study involving more than 460,000 older adults in the UK has shown the damaging physical effect in brains of older people of the opposite: social isolation. Researchers found that socially isolated participants had structural changes and lower volumes of grey matter in brain regions connected to both thinking and learning. Even after accounting for differences in age, sex, socio-economic status, alcohol and smoking habits, and levels of depression and loneliness, this finding remained. Statistically, people experiencing more social isolation were 20% more likely to develop dementia than others with no history of experiencing it these results came from a period before the worldwide lockdowns during Covid.
Researchers noted that they did not find the same link between dementia onset and loneliness – which previous studies say is a different condition than social isolation. People can feel lonely in a crowd because they feel different and experiencing social isolation does not necessarily lead to feelings of loneliness.
Socialising with others stimulates synapses and neuronal regeneration. God designed people to develop in relationship with one another, and science is now discovering that when this does not happen older adults can be very adversely affected.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge, the University of Warwick, and Fudan University used neuro imaging data from participants in the UK biobank dataset, measuring each person’s levels of social isolation, loneliness, and cognitive ability. Participants had an average age of 57 and researchers followed them for nearly 12 years before the Covid-19 pandemic.
During that period, 9% (41,886) reported being socially isolated and 6% (29,036) felt lonely. They were asked if they lived alone, and if friends or family visited them at least once a month. There were also asked about participating in social activities with others at least once a week. Anyone answering ‘no’ to at least two questions was seen to be experiencing social isolation. As well as the survey data, researchers collected physical and biological measurements, including MRI data, and assessed cognitive function of the group with thinking and memory tests.
During the study, 4998 people developed dementia. Of that number 649 were socially isolated individuals (1.55%), compared to 4349 who were not experiencing social isolation (1.03%). Study author Jiang Feng, PhD, of Fudan University said, ‘social isolation is a serious yet under recognised public health problem that is often associated with old age. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, social isolation, or the state of being cut off from social networks has intensified. It is more important than ever to identify people who are socially isolated and provide resources to help them make connections in their community.’
Churches make natural connections in their communities, and they are working hard to persuade older people to return to church after two years of absence during lock-down. They are visiting people and inviting them back, some holding special events such as coffee mornings and Brain and Soul Boosting sessions. GPs are encouraged to write ‘social’ prescriptions for patients, instead of pharmaceuticals for local groups and activities. And many older people are taking action themselves, finding out what’s available and joining local groups. People who volunteer for charities have an extra benefit, as volunteering is shown to bring psychological benefits equivalent to a doubling of salary. And more importantly – it could increase your brain matter and reduce your dementia risk.