Dementia is a condition that affects over 55 million people around the world, becoming a greater risk as people grow older. Now, new research has found a link between social isolation and dementia, with the condition changing brain structures in the brain associated with memories.
The study, published in the journal Neurology, was conducted by researchers from the University of Warwick, the University of Cambridge and Fudan University. They found that people who were isolated had lower gray matter volume in areas of the brain linked with memory and learning.
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Among the more than 460,000 participants they studied (mean age baseline 57 years), social isolation was correlated to a 26% increased risk of dementia 12 years later.
Professor Edmund Rolls, who works at the University of Warwick, explained that social isolation doesn’t necessarily equate to loneliness. “There is a difference between social isolation, which is an objective state of low social connections, and loneliness, which is subjectively perceived social isolation.”
While loneliness was associated with later dementia, once these results were adjusted for depression, they were irrelevant.
Researchers spoke about the importance of maintaining social connections, especially once people are older and at a higher risk of developing dementia. “We highlight the importance of an environmental method of reducing the risk of dementia in older adults through ensuring that they are not socially isolated. During any future pandemic lockdowns, it is important that individuals, especially older adults, do not experience social isolation,” said co-author Jianfeng Feng, PhD.
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Dementia is a condition that is more common for people over the age of 65. While the symptoms can be mitigated with medications and close care, it’s a condition that’s irreversible, making it important for people to keep an eye on possible warning signs. The earlier the condition is spotted, the better odds there are for a favorable prognosis.