Studies reveal isolation might be to reduced brain mass, cognitive decline in later years.
On a fundamental level, most humans tend to understand that social interaction is good for health and well-being in a variety of ways. Beyond any science to support this (and there’s a ton of data available), interacting with other people just tends to feel good. Even if someone likes to spend a lot of alone time – which also has its own benefits – getting out and interacting with others is a necessary balance that can prevent loss of cognitive functioning.
A recent study has attempted to solidify the link between well-being and social interaction, and the results are interesting. Without diving too deep into the scientific weeds on this subject, it’s important to explain how researchers can look for signs of neurodegeneration in older people. The main tactic is to look for a loss in overall brain volume. On a basic level, the amount of space within the cranium that is taken up by white and gray brain matter is recorded as the brain volume, with lower measurements being potentially associated with neurodegeneration.
In this study, performed by individuals at Kyushu University in Japan, the team determined that lower brain volume was associated with less social interaction. In other words, people who had less ongoing social interaction as part of their daily lives were likely to have less brain volume than those who maintained regular, ongoing interactions with others. This was a sizable study, with nearly 9,000 participants who averaged 73 years of age and had no known dementia at the time of the research. Not only was the group with less social interaction likely to have a smaller brain volume, but that group also showed more white lesions on the brain, which indicate brain damage.
The impact of social isolation on cognitive decline is significant, in general. Researcher has shown that social isolation increases the risk of deterioration of brain health over time. Moreover, social isolation is associated with a decline in cognitive functions, including memory, attention, and problem-solving skills.
It’s important to stress that tons of research and study still needs to be done in this area. However, there is a hypothesis in the field that contends it may be possible that maintaining as much brain volume as possible in older age acts as an insurance policy to fight off dementia and maintain cognitive function. In this hypothesis, it would be the case that people who have greater brain volume are also affected by dementia, but they are able to continue functioning well for longer because they started with more useful brain mass. So, as dementia gradually eats away at their cognitive abilities, they might be able to live a “normal” life for longer before the dementia reaches a point of impacting their lives.
Does social isolation lead to loss of executive function and issues with dementia? While it’s too early to make any definitive declarations, it sure seems possible that this is the case. At the very least, this is an area of study that deserves more funding and attention moving forward, so it can be determined what role isolation and a lack of social interaction may play in cognitive decline in humans.