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Can Social Isolation Really Shrink Your Brain?

Aug 25, 2023 By Marie White

A new study found that when adults who are 65 or older spend more time with family and friends, their brains tend to be bigger. So, hanging out with loved ones isn't just fun, it's also good for your health.

However, older people who often felt lonely or didn't see friends and family much (social isolation disorder) had smaller brains. Especially in the parts of the brain that help with thinking and remembering. This research was shared on July 12 in a science magazine called "Neurology."

Now, let's talk numbers of the effects of social isolation:

  • People who didn't hang out with others much had brains that filled up 67.3% of their heads.
  • People who spent a lot of time with others had brains that filled 67.8% of their heads.

How They Figured Out the Effects of Social Isolation

Researchers wanted to see if spending time with others affected brain size. They checked nearly 9,000 older adults in Japan. None of these people had memory problems. The average age was 73. These people had a special picture taken of their brains using an MRI machine. They were then asked one simple question: How often do you see or talk to friends and family?

What they found was:

  • People who said they rarely saw others also had smaller brains. And in certain brain parts that are important for thinking.
  • Lonely people also had more brain spots which can be a sign of heart problems or memory diseases.

How Depression Might Connect with Loneliness and Brain Changes

Researchers have found that depression may play a role in the connection between loneliness and smaller brain sizes. When looking at the reasons why people who had social isolation disorder had smaller brains, depression symptoms were a factor. But these symptoms only explained a part of it, roughly between 15 percent and 29 percent.

Moreover, depression can create a tough pattern of isolation. Someone who feels lonely might start feeling depressed. And many times, people who start showing signs of memory problems also have depression, between 30 to 40 percent of the time. When thinking becomes harder for someone, they might feel more alone and more depressed. It's like a cycle that keeps going.

Loneliness Might Hurt More than Just the Brain

Being alone a lot doesn't just have effects on the brain; it might hurt overall health too. Important health organizations have shared that feeling lonely can increase the chances of health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, getting overweight, having a weaker system to fight off diseases, feeling more worried, and even having a shorter life.

Some earlier studies suggest a reason for these problems. When someone feels lonely, it might cause inflammation in the body and make the body more stressed. This stress can affect the blood vessels, which can be a reason behind the brain becoming smaller.

However, it's essential to understand that the study we're talking about only found a link between loneliness and smaller brain size. It doesn't prove that being lonely makes the brain smaller. Plus, this study looked specifically at older people from Japan. So, the findings might not apply to everyone, like younger folks or people from different backgrounds.

That said, there's still hope. Even if we can't say for sure that loneliness causes the brain to shrink as one of the effects of social isolation, some other research found positive effects when older people were in social groups. Being in these groups seemed to help with thinking skills and might even have made their brains stop shrinking or grow a bit. So, helping people feel more connected and less alone might be a way to keep their brains healthier.

How to Overcome Social Isolation

Many older adults feel alone and isolated. In fact, studies have shown that up to 40% of elderly people experience these feelings. One of the reasons this matters is because our brains need to be active and engaged. When someone feels isolated and doesn't socialize, their brain doesn't get the interaction and stimulation it usually would. It's like the saying, "Use it or lose it." If we don't keep our brains active, they might not work as well.

As we get older, it might be trickier to meet new friends or maintain old relationships. But it's essential to try. There are many ways older people can stay connected:

Seek Out Resources: Look for local departments or organizations focused on the elderly. They often have information about places where older adults can meet, join group events, or attend classes. There's also a nationwide service that connects older adults and their families to various services and opportunities.

Engage in Group Activities: There are many activities to consider, such as:

  • Playing card games.
  • Going on group trips.
  • Video chatting with loved ones.
  • Exploring new places to eat.
  • Joining a group with a shared hobby, like knitting, birdwatching, or painting.
  • Reconnecting with schoolmates through alumni associations.

Value Quality Time: Research has shown that having someone to talk to, someone who's always there to listen, can help keep our brains sharp and resilient.

Pursue Hobbies: It's a good idea to join groups that align with personal interests to overcome the effects of social isolation. Finding people with similar hobbies can make it easier to form connections. Being part of a community can help you bond with others, which is not just fun but good for the brain too.

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