Social isolation ‘shrinks the brain and increases dementia risk’

Social isolation can shrink the brain and increase the risk of developing dementia, new research has shown, raising fears that working from home could make the problem worse.

A study by British and Chinese researchers suggests that without stimulation from friends, family and co-workers, the brain atrophies, leading to neurodegeneration.

The research was conducted before the pandemic, but experts believe the effect may have been compounded by social distancing, quarantine and isolation, and the widespread working from home now.

“If you live and work alone at home, you may not engage in social discussions on a regular basis and therefore your use of language and other cognitive processes will be reduced,” said Professor Barbara Sahakian, of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychiatry, who believes in the “Use it or lose it” doctrine when it comes to brain health.

“Social engagement is important for our brain, cognition and well-being,” she said.

“This is important at any age, but as our study showed, especially as we age, as social isolation increases the risk of dementia.”

Future Pandemic Planning

The researchers followed 462,619 people in the UK with an average age of 57 for 12 years and found that 1.55 per cent of those who were socially isolated developed dementia, compared to 1.03 per cent of those with a healthy social life.

After accounting for factors such as age, gender, socioeconomic status, alcohol use, smoking and depression, socially isolated people were 26 percent more likely to be diagnosed with dementia.

For social isolation, people were asked if they lived with others; whether they visited friends or family at least once a month; and whether they participated in social activities such as clubs, meetings, or volunteering at least once a week.

Anyone who answered “no” to at least two questions was considered socially isolated.

Loneliness was also associated with later dementia, but this association was not significant after adjusting for depression.

The researchers said the findings are important for future pandemic planning to avoid isolating people for long periods.

Professor Jianfeng Feng from the University of Warwick’s Computer Science Department said: “In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, social isolation and the state of being cut off from social networks has worsened.

“During future pandemic lockdowns, it is important that individuals, particularly older adults, do not experience social isolation.” Social isolation ‘shrinks the brain and increases dementia risk’

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