Willa Emerson has lived a good life. She was an academic who taught at several community colleges. Ms. Emerson has four children and 10 grandchildren spread out around the country. She retired and since her husband died, she spends most days alone.
“I thought I would like being alone, but I didn’t expect to be alone so much. I wish my children lived closer so I could see my grandchildren more,” she told The Final Call.
Ms. Emerson is part of an estimated one in four people in the United States over age 65 who experience social isolation, according to the National Institute on Aging.
Two new studies have found evidence that social isolation is a substantial risk factor for dementia in community-dwelling (noninstitutionalized) older adults.
“Social connections matter for our cognitive health and the risk of social isolation is potentially modifiable for older adults,” explained Thomas Cudjoe, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and senior author of both of the new studies.
The first study looked at the lives of 5,022 Medicare beneficiaries over a period of nine years in the National Health and Aging Trends study. All participants were 65 or older, and were asked to complete an annual two-hour, in-person interview to assess cognitive function, health status and overall well-being. Twenty-three percent of participants were socially isolated and showed no signs of dementia at that initial interview. However, by the end of this study, 21 percent of the total sample of participants had developed dementia. The researchers concluded that risk of developing dementia over nine years was 27 percent higher among socially isolated older adults compared with older adults who were not socially isolated.
“Socially isolated older adults have smaller social networks, live alone and have limited participation in social activities,” explained Alison Huang, Ph.D., M.P.H., senior research associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “One possible explanation is that having fewer opportunities to socialize with others decreases cognitive engagement as well, potentially contributing to increased risk of dementia.”
Social isolation became a major concern for seniors during the pandemic. However, more needs to be done to identify at-risk populations and create tools for providers and caregivers to minimize risk, the researchers say.
Dr. Khalillah Ali works with seniors in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. She has a health care business where she makes home visits. She told The Final Call, “In my practice, I’ve seen that social isolation was associated with about a 50 percent increased risk of dementia in some seniors. Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) was associated with a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease and a 32 percent increased risk of stroke. There are many things we need to be concerned about regarding social isolation.”
The researchers found that the answer to combatting social isolation for many seniors is technology. The second study used data from the same participants and found that more than 70 percent of people age 65 and up who were not socially isolated at their initial appointment had a working cellphone and/or computer, and regularly used email or texting to initiate and respond to others.
Ms. Emerson’s grandchildren got her a tablet for Christmas and showed her how to use it. They created group chats to make it easier for her to communicate and regularly video chat. “It really warms my heart every time they call me,” she said. “I didn’t realize how lonely I was until they gave me this tablet. I look forward to hearing from somebody every day even if it’s just a text. I have a new cellphone, too. I feel like I have more connections to the world. It’s made a big difference in my life.”