On January 20th this past week, a report came across our evening news that made us all sit up and listen. A nine year study by Johns Hopkins researchers found that socially isolated older adults have a 27% higher chance of developing dementia than older adults who aren’t.
“Social connections matter for our cognitive health, and the risk of social isolation is potentially modifiable for older adults,” Dr. Thomas Cudjoe, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins and a senior author of the study, said in a story on National Public Radio.
The study took place over nine years (2011-2020) and was recently published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. The study tracked 5,022 dementia-free U.S. adults who were 65 or older – with an average age of 76 – and not living in a residential care facility. About 23% of participants were socially isolated. Social isolation has been understood for decades to be an issue that impacts the wellbeing of individuals across the life course, but the Covid 19 pandemic brought home the burdensome nature of this problem. The study also measured whether or not participants lived alone, talked about “important matters” with two or more people in the past year, attended religious services or participated in social events, the article notes. Participants were assigned one point for each item, and those who scored a zero or one were classified as socially isolated.
Over the course of nine years, researchers periodically administered cognitive tests. Overall, about 21% of the study participants developed dementia. But among those were who were socially isolated, about 26% developed dementia – compared to slightly less than 20% for those who were not socially isolated, the article notes.
The study did not find significant differences by race or ethnicity. However, more than 70% of the participants in the study were white – with particularly small sample sizes of Hispanic, Asian and Native participants – and the authors call for further research on the topic, according to the article.
According to the Center for Disease Control, social isolation has previously been known as a dementia risk factor and is linked to other serious health conditions such as heart disease and depression. Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) was associated with a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease and a 32 percent increased risk of stroke. Loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly four times increased risk of death, 68 percent increased risk of hospitalization, and 57 percent increased risk of emergency department visits.
About 5.8 million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common type of dementia, according to the CDC.
A second study using related data found that access to technology such as cell phones can prevent social isolation among older adults.
“This is encouraging because it means simple interventions may be meaningful,” Mfon Umoh, a postdoctoral fellow in geriatric medicine at Johns Hopkins, said in reference to the second study.