Crossword puzzles, sudoku, ken-ken — all these games purportedly help keep the mind young and nimble. There’s just one drawback to these activities: They’re largely solitary.
Study after study shows that community is as important to cognitive health as diet and exercise. In fact, isolation can even increase a person’s risk for dementia.
Science in action — A paper published last week in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society looked at data pulled from the National Health and Aging Trends Study on over 5,000 older adults. None of the adults had a dementia diagnosis at the start. The study looked at data on these participants between 2011 and 2020.
Nearly a fourth of these adults were socially isolated, and that isolation was linked to a 28 percent higher risk of developing dementia. This risk remains heightened regardless of one’s race or ethnicity.
“This is essentially a wake-up call for people who aren't aware of this,” says corresponding author Thomas Cudjoe, a geriatric medicine and gerontology professor at Johns Hopkins University. “Social connections matter for our health.”
Why it’s a hack — A few hypotheses inform why social engagement helps stave off cognitive decline. For one, social isolation can decrease cognitive activity. In the long term, those with less cognitive activity become more susceptible to dementia. Socializing helps boost cognition, keeping the brain healthier for longer. One 2008 study even describes social networks as “protective” against cognitive decline.
Socially isolated elders are also missing out on resources that come with being connected to a community, from emotional support to healthcare access. In constant solitude, one’s health can decline unnoticed.
There’s also evidence that constant isolation is linked to physical and mental health risk factors that contribute to dementia, like hypertension, depression, and heart disease. A 2020 meta-analysis in The Lancet lists social isolation as one of nine risk factors, alongside smoking and diabetes, for dementia.
How it affects longevity — If low social contact ranks as a risk factor along with physiological ones, then we know it’s as serious a threat as high blood pressure or depression. The average person lives another four to eight years after a dementia diagnosis, and quality of life tends to decline before death.
Cudjoe points out that social isolation must be dealt with at individual and systemic levels. Those caring for elderly family members can use this information as a motivator to stay connected with them, knowing that regular social interaction fortifies minds against dementia. Larger facilities like nursing homes also play a role in ensuring their residents get a dose of social activity every day.
For Cudjoe, it’s clear this matter is personal. “My patients are at the center of this work and inform the questions that I asked,” Cudjoe tells Inverse. “I'm fortunate to have the opportunity to care for them to learn about this.”
Hack score out of 10 —👵👵🏻👵🏽🧓🏼👴🏾🧓🏼🧓🏿 (7/10 socially engaged seniors)