- During the COVID-19 pandemic, many seniors are finding themselves more isolated.
- While social distancing may be reducing their risk of COVID-19, it may also be putting their health at risk in other ways.
- Researchers have found that social interaction plays an important role in keeping certain regions of the brain healthy.
- Inadequate social stimulation may be putting older adults at greater risk for developing dementia. Finding safer ways for them to engage socially may be beneficial in preventing this condition.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many older adults — especially those in care facilities — are finding themselves more isolated due to social distancing measures.
While these policies are designed to keep them safe, researchers say they may be putting their health at risk in other ways.
According to a new study, social interaction plays an important role in keeping certain regions of the brain healthy.
Without adequate social stimulation, the researchers say, older adults may be at greater risk for developing dementia.
What the study found
Dr. Cynthia Felix, MPH, and her team used information on social engagement that they gleaned from 293 people who were part of the Health, Aging, and Body Composition (Health ABC) study.
On average, the study participants were 83 years old.
In order to study their brain activity, the researchers used a type of sensitive brain imaging scan called Diffusion Tensor Imaging MRI.
This scan was used to measure the integrity of the brain cells in the part of the brain that’s involved in social engagement.
Felix said the use of this type of scan was significant because, “No one has ever studied before the brain gray matter (brain cell) microstructural integrity in relation to social engagement among older adults.”
“The sensitive diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) MRI we used can detect early, cellular damage in brain cells even when the conventional MRI may look normal,” she said.
What she and her team found was that greater social engagement was related to better microstructural integrity.
Maintaining this integrity is important because once brain cells die, dementia usually follows.
What is dementia?
According to Dr. Dylan Wint, Las Vegas Legacy Neuroscience Education Endowed Chair at Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, dementia is a decline in cognitive function that’s severe enough to interfere with independent living.
Wint said one of the most common symptoms of dementia is memory loss.
He described this memory loss as “forgetting things quickly and completely, struggling to keep track of the day and date, and messing up medications and missing appointments.”
Other symptoms can be “language problems, such as routinely struggling to come up with words, or not understanding what others are saying; problems with judgment, reasoning, planning; and visuospatial problems, such as not being able to navigate or learn new routes,” said Wint.
If a person begins exhibiting symptoms such as these, Wint suggests it’s a good idea for them to get checked by their primary care provider.
When it comes to cognitive function, it’s important to “use it or lose it”
Felix said it’s commonly hypothesized in the context of brain plasticity that it’s important to “use it or lose it.”
What this means, she said, is that we need to keep using our brain cells in order to keep them healthy.
Similar to the way we must make regular use of our muscles to keep them from atrophying, we must use our brain to keep it healthy, she explained.
Felix said that social activities such as meeting with friends and family, remaining married, living with another person, attending church, attending group discussions, working, and volunteering can all give you a sense of social identity in your community.
Wint suggested that during the pandemic, when social interaction may be more risky, one thing we can do is “tune into technology more.”
For example, rather than meeting in person with people, older adults could rely more on regular telephone calls or video calls to increase their interaction with people.
Regarding in-person interactions, Felix said, “We are not advocating rash measures; the keyword is ‘balance.’”
“Awareness about our findings can help older adults plan a structured social calendar in safe ways with people who they know well and who they can safely coordinate logistics with,” she added.
She further noted, “It does not necessarily require large groups or very frequent interactions.”
Other ways you can protect yourself from dementia
Wint said that other types of activities are also important in keeping your brain healthy and free from dementia.
In particular, he pointed to physical activity.
“Aerobic exercise at a moderate level, for an average of 150 minutes each week, or at a vigorous level for 100 minutes each week, is recommended,” said Wint.
“Cognitive activities that require thinking, planning, and responding — things like puzzles, writing, picking up a new hobby, or learning a new skill [are helpful],” according to Wint.
“Even fixing things in one’s own home instead of calling a repair person could be beneficial,” he said. “Anything where your brain is engaged and challenged, and particularly, things where you are learning something new.”
“We want people to maintain high levels of social, cognitive, and physical activity,” added Wint.
He further suggested that if you can’t do one type of activity, you still try to do the others.
“For example, if you are unable to engage in aerobic exercise — perhaps because of a physical illness like lung or heart disease — I would suggest that you increase the amount of social and cognitive activities that you do,” he said.
“So, if you can’t get the full 150 minutes of aerobic exercise, you could instead engage in an equivalent duration of social or cognitive activity,” Wint added.
The bottom line
Greater social interaction appears to keep a particular part of the brain active and healthy.
Since brain cell death can lead to dementia, having an active social life may play a role in warding off cognitive decline as we age.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s especially important for older adults to have safe ways to maintain connections with others.
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