Social Isolation Could Be Contributing To Brain Volume Decrease, Study Shows

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New research from the American Academy of Neurology suggests that older adults who lack social contact may experience a reduction in overall brain volume, particularly in areas vulnerable to dementia. Maintaining an active social life in retirement may help protect the brain from such declines.

Brain volume shrinkage linked to social isolation

The research findings are significant but don’t conclusively demonstrate a direct link between social isolation and brain shrinkage; they only indicate a concerning trend.

Kyushu University’s Toshiharu Ninomiya said that social isolation is increasingly becoming a problem among older adults. Ninomiya explained that the findings suggest that offering support for individuals to assist them initiate and maintain connections with others could be beneficial in preventing dementia development and brain atrophy.

The study involved 8,896 Japanese citizens, averaging 73 years old, without dementia. They underwent MRI brain scans and health exams. The study measured social contact by asking about their frequency of communication with non-resident relatives or friends. Responses ranged from daily contact to seldom.

Individuals with the least social contact had a significantly lower overall brain volume compared to those whose social contact was more. The lowest contact group had a brain volume of 67.3% of the total intracranial volume, while the highest contact group had 67.8%. Moreover, brain areas involved in memory, such as the amygdala and hippocampus, were also smaller in the low social contact group, which is relevant to dementia-related damage.

Socially isolated seniors experience brain volume decline

The study examined the impact of social isolation on older adults’ brain health. It found that socially isolated individuals had more brain damage, specifically white matter lesions, compared to those with frequent social contact. Findings also suggested that depression played a partial role in the link between brain volumes and social isolation, accounting for 15-29% of the association.

Ninomiya concluded that the study is a highlight and doesn’t establish that social isolation leads to brain atrophy but some studies have shown that exposure to socially stimulating groups can reverse or stop brain volume declines and improve memory and thinking skills.

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