1 August 2023 | 16:40
Loneliness has emerged as a significant health threat.
General surgeon Dr. Vivek Murthy declared May that our “epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underestimated public health crisis.”
And new research shows that the number and frequency of social contacts in healthy older adults is linked to brain volume.
People with the fewest social contacts had smaller brains, while people with the most connections had larger ones.
Specifically, the temporal lobe, occipital lobe, cingulum, hippocampus, and amygdala were smaller in people who had less social interaction, according to one study published last month in the journal Neurology.
“Social isolation has been associated with … premature mortality, increased risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, increased reporting of depressive symptoms, and increased risk of dementia,” Dr. Alexa Walter and Dr. Danielle Sandsmark of the University of Pennsylvania wrote in an accompanying editorial.
To understand the impact of social contact on brain health, researchers from Kyushu University in Japan studied 8,896 elderly men and women and compared their MRI brain scans.
The study participants were also asked how often they are in contact with friends or relatives who did not live with them (every day, several times a week, several times a month or rarely).
The people with the fewest social contacts had a total brain volume that was significantly lower than those with the most social interaction.
In addition, socially isolated people had more white matter lesions – areas of brain damage – than people with frequent social contact.
“Although this study is a snapshot in time and does not establish 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 author of the investigation. Toshiharu Ninomiya told Neuroscience News.
This research adds to a growing body of research confirming that loneliness is a serious public health problem worldwide.
In July, a study revealed that lonely diabetics are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease than the general population. In fact, isolation was found to have a greater impact on diabetes patients than depression, smoking, physical activity or diet.
A study released in June suggested there may be a link between cancer survivors having strong support groups and higher survival rates.
And it’s not just the elderly or sick who feel the effects of social isolation: Gen Zers may feel it the most. About eight out of 10 report feeling isolated — twice the number of senior citizens.
“Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection in the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity and substance use disorders,” said Surgeon General Murthy.
“Together we can build a country that is healthier, more resilient, less lonely and more connected.”