The Wide-Ranging Benefits of Social Engagement

May 15, 2024

Two new studies underscore the importance of staying socially active to promote general well-being and to keep the aging brain in good working order.

In one study, researchers at Amsterdam University Medical Center looked at 3,603 older men and women living in 42 Dutch and Belgian nursing homes. None had Alzheimer’s disease or other serious memory problems.

The researchers assessed participants’ thinking and memory skills every six months over the course of two to three years. They found that, on average, cognitive decline was least severe among those nursing home residents who regularly engaged in social activities.

“Social activity can mean a lot of things,” said study leader Hein van Hout, professor of Care for Older People at Amsterdam University Medical Center. “In this study we looked at both general activities as well as specific social activities such as conversing, reminiscing, helping others and going on trips or even just to the shops. We saw that all of these activities offered this preventative effect.” 

“These findings were not affected by the level of physical activity, suggesting that social activity has a specific relationship with cognitive function,” Dr. van Hout added. 

The results, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, are consistent with earlier research showing that social interaction is key for helping to keep the brain in good working order, especially as we age. Other studies have shown, for example, that social isolation is linked to shrinkage in parts of the brain critical for cognition, and that being socially isolated was tied to a 26 percent increased risk of dementia. The risks of social isolation were independent of being depressed or feeling lonely, which in other studies have also been linked to an increased risk of dementia.

In a second study, published in The Gerontologist, researchers looked at several dozen people with Alzheimer’s disease and the spouses and adult children who cared for them. They found that people with dementia and their caregivers were at high risk for losing external social connections and increased loneliness. As dementia worsened and the demands of care mounted, social isolation increased.

Caregiving can be a highly stressful and lonely experience. Relationships with others often suffer as the day-to-day demands of caretaking become increasingly consuming. As the authors state in the title of their paper, the unceasing demands of a disease like Alzheimer’s often mean that “relationships, very quickly, turn to nothing.” 

“Unmet social needs negatively impact quality of life, and that can lead to health outcomes like depression and cardiovascular disease, as well as high health-care use and early death,” said study author Dr. Ashwin Kotwal, assistant professor of medicine in the University of California, San Francisco, Division of Geriatrics. “We know from previous research that older adults with higher levels of social isolation have more than double the odds of nursing home placement.” 

Other studies have found that older adults who reported feeling lonely have triple the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia than their more socially connected peers. The findings underscore the importance of social connection and stimulation in helping to keep the brain in good working form. 

Scientists are unsure why or how loneliness may be linked to dementia. Social interaction may keep the brain stimulated, which helps to build connections between brain cells, and may help to diminish stress. It is also possible that the brains of lonely people may be less able to compensate for the onslaughts of a disease like Alzheimer’s.

Experts say that nobody should blame themselves for feeling lonely and that there are various measures that may help to foster social connections and mitigate feelings of loneliness. Among them:

  • The internet and social media offer ways to connect. Groups like Meetup.com can be a way to connect with others who have similar interests or life experiences, either in person or virtually. Online and in-person support groups are also widely available.
  • Community centers, libraries and other organizations offer group visits to museums, crafts and art courses, music and singing programs and other activities. Many are tailored to people with Alzheimer’s and caregivers who often have few chances to connect with others and reap the benefit of mutual support. 
  • Local Y’s and organizations like AARP offer group fitness classes geared to older people that can help to forge friendships. Physical activity helps to diminish stress and is also good for the brain.
  • Reach out to a neighbor to ask how they are doing and if there’s anything you can assist with. Make a phone call to a friend or family member – today. Chances are, you will both end up feeling better.

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Eric Schmidt, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.  

Sources: Angevaare MJ, Pieters JA, Twisk JWR, Van Hout HPJ: “Social Activity and Cognitive Decline in Older Residents of Long-Term Care Facilities: A Cohort Study.” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, March 19, 2024

Ashwin A. Kotwal, MD; Theresa A. Allison, MD, PhD; Madina Halim, BA; et al: “Relationships, Very Quickly, Turn to Nothing”: Loneliness, Social Isolation, and Adaptation to Changing Social Lives Among Persons Living With Dementia and Care Partners.” The Gerontologist, April 2024


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