Can Dementia Be Impacted by Social Isolation?

As social entities, human beings require regular interactions with other people to maintain optimal health. Social isolation can have devastating health consequences; in fact, some studies suggest that loneliness may be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Lack of meaningful social contact can raise the risk of premature death by 29 percent.

Social isolation is quite common among the elderly and those with dementia, but this isolation can be quite deleterious. Almost 500,000 American seniors do not see or talk to other people for six days a week. Not only does this increase the risk for developing dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, but it also speeds the decline of those suffering from this condition.

Dementia in America

Before examining the phenomenon of dementia in the United States, it is necessary to define this condition. Dementia is not a single health condition but rather a general term for any cognitive impairment that affects memory, language, and problem solving enough to interfere with daily activities.

The most common health condition classified under the umbrella of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease which comprises 60 to 80 percent of dementia patients. The next most common cause is vascular dementia followed by Lewy body dementia, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease. Although many of these conditions are commonly associated with old age, dementia is not necessarily a feature of aging.

There are currently 5.7 million Americans living with dementia, and this figure is expected to rise to 13.8 million by 2050. This increase will be fueled primarily by a rise in life expectancy but is countered slightly by a declining risk in the general U.S. population due in part to higher education rates, growing access to health care and improving medical therapies.

Causes of Dementia

Essentially, dementia is a form of brain damage. Where this damage occurs can determine what type of cognition will be impaired. For example, if the hippocampus is damaged, then learning and memory is usually impaired.

In the most common kind of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, there is an accumulation of beta-amyloid plaques and tau protein tangles in brain cells. The plaques interfere with cell-to-cell communication while tangles disrupt cellular transport which eventually kills the cells.

There are many genetic and environmental factors that may raise the risk of dementia or speed its progression.

  • Depression
  • Alcohol overuse
  • Some medications
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Brain or spinal cord infection
  • Stroke or diminished blood flow to the brain
  • Thyroid problems
  • Vitamin deficiencies

One clear risk factor for dementia is social isolation.  According to one study involving 823 participants, higher degrees of loneliness significantly raised the risk of developing dementia. Using a five-point scale of loneliness, researchers found that each grade translated into a 51 percent higher risk of dementia than the grade just below it. However, the study leaders could not define the exact mechanism that caused this elevated risk.

How Loneliness Affects Dementia

Numerous studies have shown that lack of social interactions can accelerate cognitive decline. Although the evidence is not definitive, many health experts believe that social isolation can act on cognition in several ways. These may range from diminished physical activity to disrupted sleep or higher blood pressure.

One of the most likely ways that social isolation impacts brain function is by suppressing emotional health. Depression is quite common among dementia patients, appearing in 9 to 68 percent of them, and may play a key role in cognitive decline. One telling sign is that people with a history of depression are twice as likely to develop dementia than someone without depressive symptoms. It has been proposed that depression may damage the hippocampus which is essential for learning and memory.

Loneliness has long been linked to poor sleep, and in turn, this impaired rest can dramatically progress dementia. Sleep is a health restorative that is critical for memory creation, learning and emotional health. Without replenishing sleep, your brain function will be impaired.

Studies have shown a strong link between high blood pressure—a common feature of social isolation—and dementia. Loneliness produces stress on your vascular system by raising the levels of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol then raises your heart rate and blood pressure. Some research suggests that high blood pressure raises the risk of dementia by narrowing blood vessels and limiting blood flow to the brain. Hypertension is also a risk factor for stroke which can damage the brain and cause dementia.

How to Limit Social Isolation If You Have Dementia

Now that you understand the risks associated with ongoing social isolation if you have dementia, there are some steps you can take to lower your risk.

  • Join a fitness class—you may mitigate a number of risk factors including obesity, high blood pressure and poor sleep by joining a fitness class. Not only will this improve your physical health, but it should provide many opportunities to interact with others and develop relationships.
  • Volunteer—if you have the opportunity, you may want to join a community program that assists needy people in your area. Whether you are the one providing goods or services, or you are the one receiving them, this is an excellent way to meet new people.
  • Group counseling—if you are more interested in tackling some thornier issues involving your dementia, you may find that group sessions in your area that can assist you in dealing with depression or sleep issues.
  • Enroll in classes—it is never too late to learn something new, and an education in something appealing to you can help keep your brain functioning at a high level.  Although you may find more opportunities to socialize if you join in-person classes, you may get just as much out of online classes.
  • Hire a home health aide—in home caregivers may provide the necessary social contact you need while also offering key services like personal care and medication management. Many health insurance plans including Medicaid do cover medical and non-medical in-home care. Most home health aides charge by the hour and pass background checks.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.