Staying connected to others may help protect your brain as you age, new research reveals.
The study showed that social isolation - but not loneliness - can cause changes to certain brain structures and increase the risk of dementia.
The findings suggest that social isolation could be used as predictor of dementia risk, the British researchers added.
"There is a difference between social isolation, which is an objective state of low social connections, and loneliness, which is subjectively perceived social isolation," said Edmund Rolls, a neuroscientist in the University of Warwick's department of computer science. "Both have risks to health but ... 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."
For the study, Rolls and colleagues analyzed brain imaging data from more than 30,000 people in the United Kingdom and found that those who were socially isolated had lower volumes of gray matter in brain regions involved in memory and learning.
After adjusting for risk factors such as socioeconomic status, chronic illness, lifestyle, depression and genetics, socially isolated people had a 26% increased likelihood of developing dementia, according to the study published online June 8 in the journal Neurology.
The association between social isolation and dementia was strongest in those over 60 years of age.
Loneliness was also associated with dementia, but that link was not significant after adjusting for depression, which explained 75% of the relationship between loneliness and dementia, the researchers explained.
"With the growing prevalence of social isolation and loneliness over the past decades, this has been a serious yet underappreciated public health problem. Now, in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic there are implications for social relationship interventions and care - particularly in the older population," Rolls said in a university news release.
And, according to study co-author Barbara Sahakian, of the University of Cambridge's department of psychiatry, "Now that we know the risk to brain health and dementia of social isolation, it is important that the government and communities take action to ensure that older individuals have communication and interactions with others on a regular basis."
For more on dementia risk factors, go to Alzheimers.gov.
SOURCE: University of Warwick, news release, June 8, 2022