Social isolation is associated with a decrease in brain mass and an increased risk of dementia in areas related to cognition, according to a study published online June 8, 2022. Neurology®, American Academy of Neurology Medical Journal. The study found that, apart from risk factors such as depression and loneliness, social isolation is associated with a 26% increase in the risk of dementia.
Social isolation is a serious but unrecognized public health problem, often associated with aging. It is intensifying in the context of COVID-19’s pandemic, social isolation, or isolation from social networks. It is more important than ever to identify socially isolated people and provide resources to help them build connections in the community. “
Jianfeng Feng, PhD, Research Author, Fudan University, Shanghai, China
The study surveyed 462,619 people across the UK with an average age of 57 at the start of the study, followed for almost 12 years prior to the pandemic. Of these, 41,886 (9%) reported social isolation and 29,036 (6%) felt lonely. During the study, 4,998 people developed dementia.
Researchers collected survey data from participants, along with various physical and biological measurements, including MRI data. Participants also took thought and memory tests to assess cognitive function. Due to social isolation, people were asked three questions about social contact. Have you met with friends and family at least once a month? Also, have you participated in social activities such as clubs, meetings, and volunteer activities at least once a week? People were considered socially isolated if they answered “no” to at least two questions.
Of the 41,886 socially isolated people, 649 developed dementia. This is 1.55% compared to 4,349 (1.03%) out of 420,733 who are not socially isolated.
After adjusting for age, gender, socioeconomic status, alcohol intake and smoking, and other conditions such as depression and loneliness, researchers found that socially isolated individuals are involved in various areas of learning and thinking. I found that the amount of gray matter in the brain was low. Researchers have found that people who are socially isolated are 26% more likely to develop dementia than people who are not socially isolated. The researchers also turned to loneliness, but after adjusting, they did not find a strong correlation with the development of dementia.
“People who reported high levels of social isolation also had significant differences in brain volume associated with cognition and dementia,” Feng said. “Given the results of this study, social isolation may be an early indicator of an increased risk of dementia.”
Those who reported higher levels of social isolation were more likely to have lower gray-white masses in areas of the brain associated with learning and thinking. Overall, the results showed that the lower the amount of gray matter, the higher the social isolation.
The limitation of the study was that participants reported less health than the general population and were less likely to live alone. Therefore, the results may not apply to the general population.
This research was supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology of China, National Natural Science Foundation of China, Shanghai Municipal Government, ZJ Lab, Shanghai Brain Science Brain Stimulation Technology Center, and Welcome Trust.
This research was a collaborative study between Fudan University, Cambridge University, and the University of Warwick.
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