A new study, published in Neurology, shows that social isolation is linked to changes in brain structure and cognition. This is much related to the process of acquiring knowledge and even carries an increased risk of dementia in older adults.
Though a lot of evidence is there in support of social brain hypothesis, the present study looked more closely at how social isolation affects grey matter. In the study, the researchers looked into data from nearly 5,00,000 people from the UK Biobank, with a mean age of 57. The People were classified as socially isolated if they were living alone, had social contact less than monthly and participated in social activities less than weekly. The researchers said that their study showed that socially isolated people had poorer cognition, including in memory and reaction time, and lower volume of grey matter in many parts of the brain.
These areas included the temporal region (which processes sounds and helps encode memory), the frontal lobe (which is involved in attention, planning and complex cognitive asks) and the hippocampus – a key area involved in learning and memory, which is typically disrupted early in Alzheimer’s disease.
Later, the researchers in a follow up analysis 12 years later showed that those who were socially isolated, but not lonely, had a 26 percent increased risk of dementia.
Social isolation needs to be examined in more detail in future studies to determine the exact mechanisms behind its profound effects on our brains. But it is clear that, if you are isolated, you may be suffering from chronic stress. This in turn has a major impact on your brain, and also on your physical health.
Another factor may be that if certain brain areas are not used, there is a chance for losing some of their function. A study with taxi drivers showed that the more they memorized routes and addresses, the more the volume of the hippocampus increased. It is also possible that if one does not regularly engage in social discussion, then the chance of diminishing of attention and memory is higher.
Keeping the brain active could build up a strong set of thinking abilities throughout life, called “cognitive reserve”. The best way to do this is by learning new things, such as another language or a musical instrument.
Cognitive reserve has been shown to ameliorate the course and severity of ageing. For example, it can protect against a number of illnesses or mental health disorders, including forms of dementia, schizophrenia and depression, especially following traumatic brain injury.
Another thing is that lifestyle elements could improve cognition and wellbeing, which include a healthy diet and exercise.