To stave off memory decline we need to keep the brain stimulated. That’s why neurologists recommend playing number games and other brain games, learning a new language, learning how to dance, or learning how to play a musical instrument.
But “use it or lose it” doesn’t only include mental stimulation, as two new studies make clear. Social stimulation is equally important to keep your memory sharp and clear as you age.
Physical Isolation, Social Isolation and Loneliness
Today, most Americans are at home, or limiting their errands and travel, due to the coronavirus pandemic. That’s why I’m so thankful for technology, because even when we’re stuck at home, we can maintain our social connections with family, friends and members of our community. We might be physically isolated, but we don’t have to be socially isolated.
Social isolation is defined as low diversity and frequency of social contacts. It’s the objective state of being alone, as distinct from loneliness, which is the subjective state of feeling alone.
Sadly, it doesn’t take a global pandemic for people to feel socially isolated. Social isolation generally increases with age, as people lose partners and friends to the restrictions of chronic illness and ultimately death.
It’s important for aging folks to form new connections since the research is clear that being isolated for an extended period of time is linked to poor cognitive functioning, poor memory, and even dementia.
So, does isolation cause memory loss or does memory loss lead to isolation? A research group from the London School of Economics decided to find out.
18 Percent Memory Decline in Men and Women
The research group analyzed twelve years of data from 6,123 women and 5,110 men over the age of 50, and published their findings in the Journals of Gerontology in January.
Their review revealed that memory decline is driven by the effect of isolation rather than memory decline driving isolation.
Men who were “highly isolated” experienced a shocking 18 percent decline in memory over two years, compared to a six percent decline among men who scored “average” on a zero to five scale of isolation.
For women, the effect was more relative: When isolation increased by two points, memory declined by 18 percent on average over the next two years. This compared with an average memory decline of four percent in women who were no more isolated than average.
These are significant differences and make clear that isolation kicks off a downward spiral. As memory loss sets in, people withdraw from social interactions instead of seeking them out.
Interestingly, these memory changes are similar to the rates found among people with progressive memory decline and mild cognitive impairment prior to the development of dementia.
Dr. Sanna Read, lead author of the paper, wrote, “In some ways our findings are good news since improving older people’s social contact as a way to prevent or slow memory decline is easier than if it were the other way around.”
The study didn’t seek to establish why social isolation harms the brain, but in a review published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews in March, researchers looked at one factor that might just explain it.
Raises CRP and Fibrinogen
You’ve read in this newsletter how chronic inflammation is linked to a number of physical health conditions, but chronic inflammation is also linked to psychological and social stress as well.
A research group from the University of Surrey in England looked to see if there were any studies specifically linking social isolation, which is a form of psychological and social stress, with elevated long-term inflammation.
They analyzed16 studies that revealed people who are more socially isolated have higher levels of two inflammatory chemicals, C-reactive protein (CRP) and fibrinogen.
Higher levels of C-reactive protein are associated with poor health, while higher levels of fibrinogen increase blood clotting and usually occur when people have an injury or trauma.
Prescription: Get a Social Life
What can be done about social isolation?
Deborah Alsina, chief executive of the charity Independent Age, explains that health authorities need to recognize the severe health implications of isolation and then identify this condition as the first step toward reducing it.
Doctors need to pay attention to the social activities of their patients and determine if a patient is socially isolated, suggests Dr. Read.
“…it’s easy for a doctor to ask a patient how often they see other people as part of their daily lives. This information could be useful for a ‘social prescription’ to tackle isolation.”
In the United Kingdom, social prescribing is becoming more common as doctors help patients by prescribing hobbies such as gardening, art, and even ballroom dancing as part of efforts to boost activity, lift mood and reduce reliance on medication.
In the United States, social prescribing hasn’t quite caught on yet. However, some doctors do a good job of questioning their patients about social isolation when investigating for mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety.
My advice is to take matters into your own hands and ensure that you have regular social contact with family, friends and members of your community—especially during this global coronavirus pandemic.
Take the time to call or video chat with friends and loved ones. You can play a game, have a dinner date or even watch a movie or TV show together using an online streaming service.
And when things return to normal (soon, I hope), consider joining a church, joining a club or hobby group, taking classes, or volunteering (if you’re physically able). These activities give us interactions with others without the pressure of “making friends for life.” If the latter happens, that’s well and good, but there’s no need to feel pressure.