New studies have added to mounting evidence that social isolation is a significant risk factor for dementia in older adults. However, access to simple technologies, such as a cellphone, may help to protect the elderly from isolation.
The studies conducted by the researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health did not establish a direct cause and effect between dementia and social isolation.
However, the findings “strengthen observations that such isolation increases the risk of dementia,” according to a press release.
Dementia is a general term for an ongoing decline of brain functioning, such as the ability to remember, think, or make decisions. The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease.
An estimated 7 million people aged 65 or older in the U.S. had dementia in 2020. If current trends continue, nearly 12 million people could have dementia by 2040.
The first study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society looked at data from 5,022 Medicare beneficiaries in the National Health and Aging Trends study.
All participants were 65 or older and were asked to complete an annual interview to assess their cognitive function, health status, and overall well-being.
The researchers found that the risk of developing dementia over nine years was 27% higher among socially isolated participants compared with those who did not experience social isolation.
In the study, social isolation was defined as a lack of regular social contact and interactions with people.
“One possible explanation is that having fewer opportunities to socialize with others decreases cognitive engagement as well, potentially contributing to increased risk of dementia,” says Alison Huang, Ph.D., M.P.H., senior research associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Access to technology can help
For the second research, which was also published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, researchers used data from participants in the same National Health and Aging Trends study.
They found that older adults with consistent access to a cellphone and/or computer who regularly emailed and texted others had a 31% lower risk for social isolation.
“This study shows that access and use of simple 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,” says Mfon Umoh, M.D., Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in geriatric medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
What causes the disease?
Risk factors on their own do not cause the disease, but they represent an increased risk of developing the condition.
About 40% of dementia cases may be the result of modifiable risk factors, such as high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, obesity, lack of physical activity, poor diet, high alcohol consumption, low levels of cognitive engagement, depression, traumatic brain injury, hearing loss, air pollution, and social isolation.
However, some risk factors cannot be controlled. They include being 65 or older, being a woman, and having specific genes, such as PSEN1, PSEN2, and APP.