Social isolation results in memory loss in later life

Fifty-four years ago, John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote the song “Eleanor Rigby,” signaling us to “look at all the lonely people.”

Studies in the U.K. show that half a million people over the age of 60 spend every day alone.

Today, scientists around the world are worried about the effect of social isolation on older adults, especially in light of the stay-at-home orders enacted due to the increased mortality rate for seniors who contract COVID-19.

Specifically, scientists are looking at reduction in human contact and its association with declines in cognitive function.

Social isolation, which includes low engagement in social activities and having smaller social networks (which often result in loneliness), puts seniors at risk for poor cognitive function in later life.

Let’s take a look at what many seniors are doing now as they shelter in place—watching films or television, cooking, reading, gardening, cleaning and practicing hobbies. In most cases, these are solo activities that require little social engagement.

Juxtapose that against what a senior might have been doing during non-COVID-19 times. Seniors who play pickleball, for example, may play because they enjoy the physical activity, because it is a social sport or because playing challenges them to think strategically about their next shot.

Whatever the reason, the players are improving their cognition because of the combination of all three activities: exercise, socialization and critical thinking.

Activities like this are exactly what is missing for many of us as we self-isolate.

If we need a bit more convincing that social isolation impacts cognition, we only need to look at workers on Antarctic research stations, astronauts in space or scientist Michel Siffre, who shut himself in a cave for six months and documented his self-isolation. He wrote that after a couple of months he could “barely string thoughts together.”

If there is good news in all of this, it is that the negative effects of social isolation on cognition can be reversed or delayed by activities that stimulate the mind and body. Stress can inhibit the way we form and retrieve memories and can affect how our memory works. There are several stress reduction techniques we can do to improve our memory.

Exercise helps our brain stay sharp, increasing oxygen to the brain and reducing the risk for disorders, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, that lead to memory loss. Exercise also reduces stress hormones.

Another helpful activity is learning something new. Memory is essential to all learning because it lets us store and retrieve what we learn. By interacting with others we train our brains. Social motivation and social contact can help improve memory formation and recall, and protects the brain from neurodegenerative diseases.

Our diet has a big impact on our brain health. Diets high in sugar, refined carbs, unhealthy fats and processed foods can contribute to impaired memory and learning, as well as increase our risk of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.

To stimulate cognition, we should take part in activities that are mentally engaging and exercises that challenge our ability to think. This can help us maintain memory, thinking, attention and reasoning skills as we age.

At Senior Concerns we have thought long and hard about how we can help to prevent or delay cognitive decline in our homebound seniors. We are starting with folks most at risk: those who either have a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment or are experiencing fear and concern about memory loss that is affecting their daily functioning.

Senior Concerns has developed a new program called Think Fit to support older adults experiencing early memory loss. Think Fit is an evidence-informed program designed to positively impact individuals with early memory issues.

Think Fit will be administered over the Zoom platform, live online, two days a week for two hours each live session. The program also provides guidance on daily reinforcement to build brain health habits into daily life.

Each session includes fitness, a brain-stimulating activity, education provided by expert speakers, a support group and a mindfulness exercise.

To learn more about the programs go to https://www.seniorconcerns.org/programs/think-fit/.

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Andrea GallagherAndrea Gallagher

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