If You Do This in Social Situations, Your Dementia Risk Soars

Whether you're doing it intentionally or not, it's bad for your brain.

We all look forward to getting together with friends and family, especially as warmer weather arrives and we can spend more time outside. Whether you prefer to be in the spotlight or have one-on-one conversations, hanging out and catching up with new or old friends is a great way to stay connected. But you may be doing something in these situations—intentionally or not—that could be hurting your brain. Read on to find out what social tendency researchers say spikes your dementia risk.

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Dementia is a growing concern across the globe.

man with dementia holding head
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Dementia is prevalent across the U.S., and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that roughly five million adults are currently living with the condition. With no cure, researchers have been actively working to identify factors that put individuals at risk.

According to the CDC, the strongest risk factor for dementia is age, as the majority of cases affect people who are over 65. But more obscure risk factors have been explored as of late—including not brushing your teeth and snoring at night. Now, researchers have identified a significant link between dementia risk and the way people behave in social situations.

A recent study found a connection between social behavior and dementia risk.

woman on phone in social setting
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Your brain controls your emotions, thoughts, and interactions, so it's not surprising that certain social situations can affect your brain health. Spending time with other people benefits your brain—and according to a new study, being a social butterfly may have even more benefits than you originally thought.

Findings published in Neurology on June 8 suggest that people who are socially isolated had lower brain volume in the regions associated with learning and thinking. These just so happen to be the areas of the brain that are initially affected by Alzheimer's disease—the most common form of dementia. In fact, those with isolated social contact had a staggering 26 percent increased likelihood of developing dementia, compared with those who had regular social interaction.

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Researchers did not find an association with a related factor.

lonely elderly woman on couch
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Researchers from the U.K. and China surveyed 462,619 participants with an average age of 57 about their social contact, ran MRI scans, and administered cognition tests. Over the course of the 12 years, 4,998 of the participants developed dementia.

Interestingly, while the external, objective aspect of being socially isolated was associated with increased dementia risk, the internal feeling of isolation—loneliness—was not linked to the debilitating condition. Both isolation and loneliness have previously been studied by researchers, as they were thought to potentially increase the chances of dementia. But in this study, investigators distinguished the effects of the external and internal factors.

"Both have risks to health but, using the extensive multi-modal data set from the UK Biobank, and working in a multidisciplinary way linking computational sciences and neuroscience, we have been able to show that it is social isolation, rather than the feeling of loneliness, which is an independent risk factor for later dementia," Edmund Rolls, DPhil, study author and neuroscientist from the University of Warwick Department of Computer Science, told ScienceDaily.

"This means it can be used as a predictor or biomarker for dementia in the U.K.," he added.

Social isolation was a problem even before the pandemic.

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Data from the U.K. Biobank study was collected almost 12 years ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic. This indicates that social isolation was a problem even before the advent of stay-at-home and quarantine orders, and now looms as an even bigger concern.

"Social isolation is a serious public health problem that is often associated with old age," Sara Imarisio, PhD, head of research at Alzheimer's Research U.K., said in a press release outlining findings. "This issue has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic as more people were cut off from their usual social networks."

In fact, researchers say the pandemic has only emphasized the need to encourage healthy socialization.

Experts recommend staying physically and socially active.

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According to Imarisio, it may not be possible to generalize study results just yet, as participants "had fewer health conditions and were less likely to live alone compared to the general population." But she did say there are proactive steps you can take to mitigate risk—and it's never too late to start.

"Apart from staying socially active, there are many other ways to help keep our brains healthy as we age," she said. "These include being physical and mentally active, not smoking, only drinking in moderation, eating a balanced diet, and keeping cholesterol and blood pressure levels in check."

And in the event of any additional COVID-related lockdowns, researchers stress the need to avoid complete isolation.

"We highlight the importance of an environmental method of reducing risk of dementia in older adults through ensuring that they are not socially isolated," Jianfeng Feng, PhD,  professor from the University of Warwick Department of Computer Science and corresponding author for the study, told ScienceDaily. "During any future pandemic lockdowns, it is important that individuals, especially older adults, do not experience social isolation."

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