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Study shows social isolation can spark dementia

elderly gentleman sitting by himself in an armchair
elderly gentleman sitting by himself in an armchair Image credit: ageukmobility.co.uk

Eldrely people who are socially isolated are more likely to develop dementia according to a new national study.

Research revealed the risk of developing the illness increases by 26% in older adults if they do not share their home with anyone else or have regular visits from family and friends.

Over 460,000 people in their 50s and 60s took part in the survey which was rolled out by the universities of Cambridge, Warwick and Fudan in China.

The study also suggested eldrely people suffering isolation have less grey matter in parts of the brain which functions memory and learning, a situation which has intensified through lockdown.

Professor Edmund Rolls, a neuroscientist from the University of Warwick, highlighted the difference between social isolation and loneliness.

He described loneliness as 'subjectively perceived social isolation' compared to social isolation which is 'an objective state of low social connections'.

Rolls said the study only shows social isolation is an independent risk for developing dementia.

Researchers analysed data from MRI scans and results from thinking and memory tests in the UK Biobank, which stores information from half a million people.

Everyone who took part in the study, who were the average age of 57 at the beginning of the initiative, answered questions such as if they had visits from loved ones on a regular basis, if they were members of social clubs, attended meetings or signed up for volunteering opportunities on a weekly basis.

All participants were monitored for almost 12 years before the pandemic hit.

The results showed a tenth (41,886) classed themselves as socially isolated with 6% (29,036) felt they were lonely.

A total of 4,998 of participants went on to develop dementia. Around 1.55% of those in the social isolated group were diagnosed with the illness compared to 1.03% of those who suffered loneliness.

After taking into account factors such as age, smoking, depression and alcohol intake experts concluded socially isolated people are 26% more likely to develop dementia.

Later studies of brain scans from 30,000 of the same socially isolated participants showed they had lower levels of the brain’s grey matter which controls learning and thinking.

Professor Jianfeng Feng, a computational biologist from the University of Warwick, said: 'During any future pandemic lockdowns, it is important that individuals, especially older adults, do not experience social isolation.’

More than 850,000 Britons are living with dementia.