Dementia: The feeling that increases your risk of dementia by 26% – sound familiar?

John Barnes opens up on his aunt’s dementia on GMB

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The reason for doing so is not to engage in exercise, this plays a significant role as well, but to see a friend or family member. The purpose of this exercise is to reduce the risk of social isolation, a phenomenon defined as a “lack of social contacts and having few people to interact with regularly” by the National Institute of Ageing.

The reason social isolation is so important in the context of dementia is because scientists have found that it can increase the risk of the disease by up to 26 percent, that is according to a new study published in the journal Neurology.

Conducted as part of a collaboration between the Universities of Cambridge, Warwick, and Fudan, the study analysed data from more than 30,000 adults in the UK Biobank to analyse how social isolation and loneliness influenced someone’s risk of dementia.

The researchers found those who were most socially isolated had lower volumes of grey matter in the brain; these areas of matter are responsible for learning and memory.

As well as looking into the impact of social isolation, the researchers also studied the impact of loneliness on dementia risk. At this point it is important to note that while similar, loneliness and social isolation are very different entities.

Neuroscientist at the University of Warwick Professor Edmund Rolls explained: “There is a difference between social isolation, which is an objective state of low social connections, and loneliness, which is subjectively perceived social isolation.

“Both have risks to health but, using the extensive multi-modal data set from the UK Biobank, and working in a multidisciplinary way linking computational sciences and neuroscience, we have been able to show that it is social isolation, rather than the feeling of loneliness, which is an independent risk factor for later dementia.”

The official definition of loneliness according to the Campaign to End Loneliness is “a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship”. Therefore, while social isolation is an objective act, loneliness is a subjective feeling; however, it is possible to be both lonely and socially isolated at the same time.

Such is the impact of social isolation on dementia risk, Professor Rolls believes “it can be used as a predictor or biomarker for dementia in the UK”.

Professor Rolls added that loneliness and social isolation were two problems that had been exacerbated by COVID-19: “Now, in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are implications for social relationship interventions and care – particularly in the older population.”

Alongside the problem worsening due to the biggest health crisis for a generation, Professor Roll said loneliness and social isolation had been “a serious yet underappreciated public health problem”, one that hasn’t been attended to until it has reached a crisis point.

The University of Warwick’s Professor Jianfeng Feng added: “During any future pandemic lockdowns, it is important that individuals, especially older adults, do not experience social isolation.”

Co-researcher, Professor Barbara Sahakian, who worked on the Cambridge team, echoed these comments, calling for the Government “and communities [to] take action to ensure that older individuals have communication and interactions with others on a regular basis”.

While loneliness and social isolation are becoming ever more significant risk factors for dementia, they form part of a wide gamut of risk factors associated with the disease.

According to studies conducted as recently as 2020, there is evidence to suggest there are at least 12 main risk factors for dementia, some which appear as early in life adolescence.

While one may not associate dementia risk with young people, there is considered to be a link between academic progress and the degenerative neurodegenerative disease.

In a report published in The Lancet in 2020, education was identified as the sole “Early life” risk factor for the disease with researchers finding that less education in the early stages of someone’s life could increase their vulnerability to the disease.

The reason for this was because higher and longer lasting education improved cognitive performance and reduced the likelihood of the onset of dementia. While this may be unnerving reading for those who received their A-Level or are awaiting their GCSE results, it doesn’t mean someone who leaves school at 16 is more likely than a PHD student to develop dementia.

The study outlined a range of other risk factors which were considered to be much more influential than education. For mid-life this included:
• Hearing loss
• Hypertension
• Obesity
• Excessive alcohol intake
• Head injury.

Meanwhile, later life factors, defined as affecting those over the age of 65 were:
• Smoking
• Depression
• Social isolation
• Physical inactivity
• Diabetes
• Air pollution.

Professor Gill Livingston, lead author of the study, said at the time the report was published: “Our report shows that it is within the power of policy-makers and individuals to prevent and delay a significant proportion of dementia, with opportunities to make an impact at each stage of a person’s life.”

As a result, the report demonstrated that dementia is not just something which the elderly can impact and be affected by, but something of national concern.

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