Social isolation among older people is a risk factor in dementia – but making use of basic communications technology can help to reduce that, new research has found.
Two new studies have strengthened the evidence base around loneliness and dementia, with social isolation again being identified as a substantial risk factor.
However, using communication technology – even more basic means such as texting or email – can help to reduce that risk, the researchers found.
“Social connections matter for our cognitive health, and the risk of social isolation is potentially modifiable for older adults,” says Dr Thomas Cudjoe, assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and senior author of both of the new studies.
The first study used data collected on a group of 5,022 Medicare beneficiaries in the United States for a long-term study known as the National Health and Aging Trends, which began in 2011.
All participants were 65 or older, and were asked to complete an annual two-hour, in-person interview to assess cognitive function, health status and overall wellbeing.
At the initial interview, 23 per cent of the 5,022 participants were socially isolated and showed no signs of dementia. However, by the end of this nine-year study, 21 per cent of the total sample of participants had developed dementia.
The researchers concluded that risk of developing dementia over nine years was 27 per cent higher among socially isolated older adults compared with 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 Dr Alison Huang, senior research associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“One possible explanation is that having fewer opportunities to socialise with others decreases cognitive engagement as well, potentially contributing to increased risk of dementia.”
Social isolation increased significantly for older people and those with neurological conditions or injuries during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many struggling to regain the interaction they once had.
Interventions to reduce that risk are possible, according to results of the second study, with the use of communications technology such as telephone and email lowering the risk for social isolation.
Using data from participants in the same National Health and Aging Trends study, researchers found that more than 70 per cent of people age 65 and over who were not socially isolated at their initial appointment had a working mobile phone and/or computer, and regularly used email or texting 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 per cent lower risk for social isolation than the rest of the cohort.
“Basic communications technology is a great tool to combat social isolation,” says Dr Mfon Umoh, postdoctoral fellow in geriatric medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
“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.”
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