Study | Isolation Increases Dementia Risk


Elderly woman | Image by pikselstock

While social isolation has been shown to harm health, its exact impact is not always clear. However, a new study from researchers at Johns Hopkins is shining light on this little-understood phenomenon.

According to the study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, older people who socially isolate possess a 28% higher chance of developing dementia than their more socially active peers.

Dementia is not a specific disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. Rather, it refers to “a group of symptoms affecting thinking and social abilities severely enough to interfere with daily functioning.”

Alzheimer’s, often confused with dementia, is a “specific progressive disease of the brain that slowly causes impairment in memory and cognitive function.”

“Social connections matter for our cognitive health, and the risk of social isolation is potentially modifiable for older adults,” said Dr. Thomas Cudjoe, a senior author of the study and an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins.

Generally speaking, social isolation is defined as limited social relationships and infrequent interactions with other people.

The study analyzed over 5,000 dementia-free U.S. residents aged 65 and older. The average age of the participants was 76. None of the people involved lived in a residential care facility or nursing home at the beginning of the study. Roughly 23% of the study’s participants were classified as socially isolated.

Researchers monitored the subjects over the course of nine years, during which the participants were periodically assessed using cognitive tests. Over one-quarter of the individuals considered socially isolated developed dementia over the nine years. In contrast, only one-fifth of the socially active group developed the condition.

The authors also concluded that race and ethnicity did not affect an individual’s risk factors.

While the researchers confirmed that a relationship exists between social isolation and higher risks of dementia, the mechanisms that promote the condition remain unclear.

If that pathway can ultimately be explained, it “may offer meaningful insights for the development of novel solutions to prevent or ameliorate dementia,” the study concluded.

According to the National Institute on Aging, dementia is not the only risk from prolonged social isolation. Other health risks such as elevated blood pressure, heart disease, cognitive impairment, and depression have similarly been found to correlate with seclusion.

Making matters worse, socially isolated individuals may be less likely to leverage available resources, like the Eldercare Locator, a program developed by the U.S. Administration on Aging that connects elderly Americans and their family members with helpful services.

Fortunately, some relatively simple solutions can help.

A separate study from the Bloomberg School of Public Health found that older individuals with consistent access to technology – like mobile texting or email – had a 31% lower risk of becoming socially isolated than other participants in the study.

“Basic communications technology is a great tool to combat social isolation,” according to Mfon Umoh, M.D., Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in geriatric medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“[S]imple technologies are important factors that protect older adults against social isolation, which is associated with significant health risks. This is encouraging because it means simple interventions may be meaningful,” said Umoh.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 25% of American adults 65 and older face social isolation.

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