Sometimes it’s true that love is all you need. According to a new study published by the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, social engagement is a key factor in bolstering brain activity in older adults.
According to the researchers, “higher levels of grey matter – or the cells that make up the brain’s outer layer -- is an indicator of improved cognitive function.” The level of grey matter in participants’ brains increased for those who reported being socially active. This change in their brain matter impacts “language, attention, concentration, decision-making and information processing.”
"I would advise my patients to actively participate in various social activities that give [them] a social identity within [their] social network, at least once a week, to keep [their] brain cells healthy," study co-author Dr. Cynthia Felix told UPI.
"A balanced and structured planning of social activities is very doable even amidst the [COVID-19] pandemic, just as one plans for a healthy diet or physical activity," said Felix, a geriatrician and a post-doctoral associate at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.
A new study developed by the marketing-research platform Collaborata in partnership with AARP, reflects the growing concern over cellular health and brain health for adults of all ages. The researchers, leveraging AI technology, analyzed millions of online conversations about aging and health to better understand larger trends around this topic. Their primary concerns are not directly related to brain function, as this research is still so new, but instead are focused around how dying cells cause a loss of skin elasticity and how cell mutation increases the likelihood of cancer.
Loneliness and Isolation
Feelings of loneliness have many additional consequences on top of impacting levels of brain health. Joyce Simard and Ladislav Volicer studied social isolation in long-term care facilities and outlined these consequences. According to their report, some of these consequences “…include increased risk of depression, alcoholism, suicidal thoughts, aggressive behaviors, anxiety, and impulsivity. Some studies found that loneliness is also risk factor for cognitive decline and progression of Alzheimer’s disease, recurrent stroke, obesity, elevated blood pressure, and mortality. Lonely older people may be burdened by more symptoms before death and may be exposed to more intense end-of-life care compared with non-lonely people.”
It's important to note that loneliness and social isolation are related, but also totally different. It's important to understand these differences in order to help meet the needs of someone who might be experiencing either loneliness or isolation. For a deeper look into this issue, please check out this insightful article by AgingInPlace.org.
For many adults aging alone at home, gaining proper socialization has become a significant concern. According to a recent study by the University of Michigan, in June of 2020, 56% of people over the age of 50 said they felt isolated from others. A similar study in 2018 only found that 27% felt isolated from others, reflecting a large shift, most likely due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Nearly half of older adults (46%) in June 2020 reported infrequent social contact (once a week or less) with family, friends, or neighbors from outside the home, compared to 28% in 2018.”
Loneliness has impacted women harder than men, with 47% of women and 35% of men reporting a feeling of lack of companionship. Nearly half of caregivers (48%) also report experiencing social isolation.
“In addition, feeling a lack of companionship was more common for those who reported fair or poor physical health (52% vs. 39% of those reporting excellent, very good, or good physical health) or fair or poor mental health (68% vs. 39% of those reporting excellent, very good, or good physical health), and more common for those reporting more symptoms of depression (84% vs. 36% among those with fewer symptoms).”
And even for those who reside in a memory-care community, the pandemic has resulted in many older adults having to isolate in their rooms while their communities closed their door to outside visitors. As the winter months and cold weather arrive, along with the latest wave of coronavirus infections (and the flu season), these residents will again struggle with social isolation.
In our next blog, we’ll provide a list of some of the best ways for older adults to combat loneliness and isolation.