Socially Isolated Older Adults Are 30% More Likely To Develop Dementia
With the aging population growing exponentially, gaining a deeper understanding of longevity is more important now than ever. Caring for ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities means learning about not just what it means to age but what it takes to age well.
And in a new study published by the Journal of American Geriatrics Society this week, researchers discovered that social isolation was associated with a higher risk of developing dementia, making socialization a top priority for preventing cognitive decline.
How social isolation influences cognitive decline.
The study followed 5,022 adults over the age of 65 from the National Health and Aging Trends Study—a longitudinal and nationally representative group of older adults in the U.S.—over the course of nine years (i.e., 2011 to 2020).
Within the group, approximately one in four older U.S. adults faced social isolation—i.e., they had few social relationships and infrequent contact with others. the results showed that social isolation was associated with a 28% higher risk of developing dementia (25.9% of the socially isolated group probably had dementia, compared to 19.6% of the non-isolated group).
While this statistic seems high, researchers warn that the association between dementia and social isolation may be underestimated, as older adults living in nursing homes and residential care facilities (in which dementia and social isolation are highly prevalent) were not included in this study.
While the findings did not vary by race in this study, scientists conclude that more research is needed to determine the specific dementia-related implications of social isolation on different racial and ethnic groups, as a higher prevalence of dementia has been found in African American, Hispanic, American Indian, and Alaska Native older adults compared to White older adults. With the growing diversity of the aging population, accounting for racial and ethnic disparities within the design of future longitudinal population studies is imperative.
Why social connection is key as we age.
Social connection has a profound impact on cognitive health and longevity. As such, we need to place a higher value on connecting with others and fostering close relationships as we (and others in our communities) age.
The study's findings provide reasons for promoting social connection as a valuable part of a dementia prevention plan, thoughtfulness in policy that addresses our aging population, and guidance on how we can better care for ourselves and our communities.
"Ageism is a killer—literally and figuratively," Ellen Cole, Ph.D., a psychologist that works with women over 70, previously told mindbodygreen "If you think it's better to be younger than older, then you're not going to age well." Cole suggests talking with people your age about the reality of aging (the positives, negatives, and lessons) and encourages keeping the conversation lighthearted. Find good company that you can share positive interactions (and get through trying experiences) with, and don't fall into the trap of overvaluing youth.
Social connection is incredibly important for many aspects of health. This study provides yet another example of how promoting our own health and well-being is not a lone endeavor; rather, optimizing wellness and longevity requires connection and community.
In addition to being socially connected, other ways to promote brain longevity as you age include playing board or card games, learning new skills, and taking a high-quality memory supplement with science-backed ingredients (such as citicoline—a nootropic bioactive that has been shown to improve cognitive impairment). Invite your friends over for a game night or take Scrabble the next time you visit an older family member.
Josey Murray is a freelance writer focused on inclusive wellness, joyful movement, mental health, and the like. A graduate of Wellesley College, where she studied English and Creative Writing, her work appears in Women’s Health, Cook & Culture, and more. By expressing her own vulnerability, she writes with warmth and empathy to help readers find self-compassion and true wellness that’s sustainable for body, mind, and planet.