Social isolation is a risk factor for dementia in community-dwelling older people, study shows

Social isolation is a risk factor for dementia in community-dwelling older people, study shows

In two studies using nationally representative data from the National Health and Aging Trends Study collected on thousands of Americans, researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Bloomberg School of Public Health have contributed significantly to the evidence that social isolation is a substantial risk factor for dementia in older people living in the community (non-institutionalized) and identified technology as an effective method of intervention.

Taken together, the studies did not show a direct cause and effect between dementia and social isolation, defined as a lack of regular social contact and interaction with people. But the researchers say the studies reinforce the observation that such isolation increases the risk of dementia, and suggest that relatively simple efforts to increase social support for older adults -; such as texting and email use -; can reduce this risk. According to the National Institute on Aging, an estimated 1 in 4 people over the age of 65 in the United States experience social isolation.

Social connections are important to our cognitive health and are potentially easily modifiable for older adults without the use of medication.”

Thomas Cudjoe, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and lead author of both new studies

The first study, described on January 11 in Journal of the American Geriatrics Societyused data collected from a group of 5,022 Medicare beneficiaries for a long-term study known as National Health and Aging Trends that began in 2011. All participants were over age 65 and were asked to complete an annual two-hour in-person interview to assess cognitive function, health condition and overall well-being.

At the initial interview, 23% of the 5,022 participants were socially isolated and showed no signs of dementia. However, by the end of this nine-year study, 21% of the total sample of participants had developed dementia. The researchers concluded that the risk of developing dementia over nine years was 27% higher in socially isolated older adults compared to older adults who were not socially isolated.

“Socially isolated older adults have smaller social networks, live alone, and have limited participation in social activities,” says Alison Huang, Ph.D., MPH, senior research fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “One possible explanation is that fewer opportunities to socialize with others also reduce cognitive engagement, potentially contributing to an increased risk of dementia.”

Interventions to reduce this risk are possible, according to the results of a second study published on December 15 in the US Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Specifically, the researchers found that the use of communication technologies such as the telephone and e-mail reduced the risk of social isolation.

For the second study, researchers used data from participants in the same National Health and Aging Trends study and found that more than 70% of people age 65 and older who were not socially isolated at the first appointment had a working cell phone and/or computer. and regularly used e-mail or text messaging to initiate and respond to others. Over the four-year research period for this second study, older adults who had access to such technology consistently showed a 31% lower risk of social isolation than the rest of the cohort.

“Basic communication technology is a great tool to combat social isolation,” says Mfon Umoh, MD, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in geriatric medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “This study shows that access to and use of simple technologies are important factors that protect older adults from social isolation, which is associated with significant health risks. This is encouraging because it means that simple interventions can be meaningful.”

Social isolation has received significant attention over the past decade, particularly due to restrictions put in place for the COVID-19 pandemic, but more work needs to be done to identify at-risk populations and create tools for providers and caregivers to minimize risk, researchers say. . Future research in this area should focus on increased risks based on biological sex, physical limitations, race, and income level.

Other researchers who contributed to this research are Laura Prichett, Cynthia Boyd, David Roth, Tom Cidav, Shang-En Chung, Halima Amjad and Roland Thorpe from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

This research was funded by the Caryl & George Bernstein Human Aging Project, Johns Hopkins University Center for Innovative Medicine, National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, National Institute on Aging, Secunda Family Foundation, Patient-Centered Care for Old Adults with Multiple Chronic Conditions, and the National Institute for minority health and health disparities.

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