New Study Reveals Link between Loneliness, Brain Volume

More social engagement may benefit elders’ brain health and contribute to the prevention of dementia, according to new research.

The study, “Association Between Frequency of Social Contact and Brain Atrophy in Community-Dwelling Older People Without Dementia,” discovered a connection between loneliness in older people and decreased brain volume, particularly in areas responsible for developing dementia.

Nearly 9.000 persons in Japan without dementia were included in the study, with the average age being 73.

The elders underwent physical tests and MRI brain imaging and were asked questions to determine their level of social contact, such as how frequently they meet or speak on the phone with friends or family members. Researchers also took into consideration other factors that could affect brain volume, namely age, diabetes, smoking, and exercise.

Researchers found that people with the lowest rates of social contact had an overall significantly lower brain volume than the elders who had the highest rates of social contact.

These socially isolated people also had more small damaged areas in the brain, known as white matter lesions, in addition to symptoms of depression. However, only 15% to 29% of the association was due to depressive symptoms.

The study’s findings, published in the Neurology journal, indicated that lower social contact frequency is linked to lower cognitive function-related regional brain volumes.

Professor Toshiharu Ninomiya, one of the researchers in this study, stated that “while this study…does not determine that social isolation causes brain atrophy, some studies have shown that exposing older people to socially stimulating groups stopped or even reversed declines in brain volume and improved thinking and memory skills.

The scientist also added that interventions to improve people’s social isolation could help maintain brain volume and prevent dementia.

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