Study finds social isolation promotes dementia

Verified on 06/09/2022 by Guillaume Tabbara, Journalist

Social isolation is increasingly observed, especially with the pandemic. Scientists reveal that it poses a risk of dementia.

The difference between loneliness and social isolation

Researchers from theUniversity of Warwick (UK) andShanghai University decided to study the links between social isolation, loneliness and dementia by exploring biological mechanisms.

Their work was published on June 8 in the journal Neurology of the’American Academy of Neurology.

Professor Edmund Rolls, a neuroscientist who participated in the study, explains that“there is a difference between social isolation, which is an objective state of weak social ties, and loneliness, which is subjectively perceived social isolation.”

More than 30,000 patients studied

The scientists used the cohort UK Biobank, which brings together data from more than 460,000 individuals with an average age of 57 years. After an average follow-up of 11.7 years, experts suggest that 4,998 of them developed dementia of any kind. This represents 1.08% of participants.

To determine these results, the researchers studied detailed data:

  • Demographics: gender, age and ethnicity
  • Socioeconomic: level of education, household income
  • Biological: BMI, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease and other disabilities
  • Cognitive: processing speed and visual memory
  • Behavioral: current smoker, alcohol consumption and physical activity
  • Psychological: loneliness, depressive symptoms and neuroticism

Social isolation directly related to cognitive functions

To complete their analyses, the researchers obtained brain MRIs from more than 32,000 participants. “Socially isolated individuals had lower gray matter volume in the temporal and frontal regions”explain the scientists.

Loneliness is also associated with later dementia, but this result is not significant for the experts, who explain that depression alone explained 75% of this relationship.

“Social isolation is a risk factor for dementia that is independent of loneliness and many other covariates.”, therefore advance the British and Chinese researchers. In a preventive way, social isolation can be an indicator, a harbinger of a risk of dementia.

The impact of the Covid pandemic

By studying the subcategories of people, the researchers found that this effect was predominant in people over the age of 60. Professor Rolls announced that“In the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are implications for interventions and care in social relationships, particularly for the older population.”

This health problem is “serious but underestimated” he adds. The researchers hope that everyone, and especially governments, can take the necessary steps to ensure that older people in particular continue to communicate and interact with others.

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