A new study published in Psychological Medicine, entitled “Social isolation from childhood to mid-adulthood: is there an association with older brain age?,” affirmed that social isolation during adulthood is linked to an older estimated brain age, stressing the importance of maintaining social connections for brain health.
Researchers, motivated by the fact that social isolation has been connected to negative health impacts, including cardiovascular disease, depression, inflammation, and even premature death, decided to seek a better understanding of the potential effects of social isolation on the brain.
Senior research fellow at the University of Auckland and study author, Roy Lay-Yee, expressed his interest in the social determinants of health and well-being, including social isolation or the lack of social contact, adding that “being socially connected is vital as it has effects which are embedded in the mind and body, with major consequences for our lives.”
This study collected data from the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study and included assessments at multiple ages, from childhood (age 5-11) to adulthood (age 26-38), tracking the participants’ social isolation status and measured brain health at age 45.
The researchers classified study participants into four different groups based on their patterns of social isolation from childhood to adulthood.
The first group was called “never isolated,” which included individuals who never experienced social isolation, either in childhood or adulthood, and the second one was the “child-only isolation” group which included individuals who experienced social isolation only during their childhood but not in adulthood.
The third group, named “adult-only isolation,” included individuals who did not experience social isolation during their childhood but became socially isolated in adulthood, while the last group, named “persistent child-adult isolation,” was made up of individuals who experienced social isolation both during their childhood and throughout their adulthood.
Brain age was estimated using an algorithm that combined several measures of brain structure obtained through MRI scans when the participants were 45 years old, which quantified the difference between estimated brain age and the participants’ chronological age, also called the brain age gap estimate.
When the estimated brain age is higher than the chronological age, it indicates that the brain’s structural characteristics are similar to those of an older individual, while when the estimated brain age is lower than the chronological age, the brain’s structural features resemble those of a younger individual.
Researcher Lay-Lee and his colleagues also adjusted their results for a variety of potential confounding factors, including family factors (teenage mother, single parent, change in residence, mistreatment), sociodemographic factors like sex and socioeconomic position, and child behavioral factors such as self-control and worry or fearfulness.
The study found that individuals who experienced isolation in their adulthood had an average estimated brain age that was 1.73 years older on average than those who never experienced isolation, while individuals who were isolated during their childhood did not show any signs of older brain age.
“The take-home message would be to maintain your social relationships which will give you better brain health and cognitive function, and other benefits, in the longer term,” stated Lay-Lee to the psychology and neuroscience website PsyPost, urging individuals to try to reach out to people who may require social contact.
The senior research fellow at the University of Auckland also stressed that this study’s findings only reveal a link between social isolation and older brain age but not a definitive result that shows that the relation between the two is casual, emphasizing that further research is needed to back up these findings.