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Experts say social isolation can affect both heart and brain health. Westend61/Getty Images
  • A new study reports that social isolation can increase a person’s risk of heart attack and stroke.
  • Another new study concludes that loneliness can lead to cognitive decline.
  • Experts say older adults can lower their risks by being socially active, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly.
  • They also encourage family members to stay involved with older relatives to prevent them from becoming socially isolated.

Older adults who are lonely, socially isolated, or do not participate in engaging activities are at risk for heart attack, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease, according to a pair of studies released this week.

The first study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, found that social isolation and loneliness might increase the risk of either heart attack, stroke, or death. The data showed that being socially disconnected can increase the risk of heart attack by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent.

The researchers defined social isolation as having infrequent in-person contact and social relationships with different groups, such as friends, colleagues, family, and members of community groups, such as religious organizations.

People with three or fewer social contacts per month could have a 40 percent increased risk of recurrent heart attack or stroke, the researchers reported.

They noted that the risk of social isolation increases with age due to widowhood, retirement, and friends and family passing away. Social isolation affects nearly one-fourth of adults over 65 and estimates indicate that between 33 and 47 percent of older adults are lonely.

However, social isolation and loneliness are not limited to older adults. Generation Z, young adults between 18 and 22, is characterized as the loneliest generation. This might be because they engage in less meaningful in-person activities and use social media more than other generations.

The COVID-29 pandemic also increased social isolation in several groups, including people between 18 and 25, older adults, women, and low-income individuals.

The new study found that:

  • Social isolation and loneliness are common but are under-recognized as contributing to cardiovascular and brain health.
  • The lack of social connection is associated with an increased risk of premature death from all causes, especially among men.
  • People who experience social isolation or loneliness are more likely to experience chronic stress and depression. Depression can also lead to social isolation.
  • Social isolation in childhood is associated with obesity, high blood pressure, and increased blood glucose levels.

The researchers reported that people with a higher risk of social isolation and loneliness include:

  • Those in underrepresented racial and ethnic groups
  • People who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ)
  • People with physical disabilities, including vision and hearing impairments
  • People living in rural areas and areas with limited resources
  • People with limited access to technology and the internet
  • Recent immigrants
  • Those incarcerated

The second study, published in the online issue of Neurology, the American Academy of Neurology’s medical journal, looked at why some people with amyloid plaques in their brains associated with Alzheimer’s disease show no sign of the disease.

In contrast, others with similar plaques have memory and cognitive issues.

The researchers hypothesized that genetic and life factors can create a cognitive reserve that helps protect the brain. Participating in clubs, religious groups, sports, artistic activities, and education before age 26 may affect the brain’s cognitive reserve. Continuing to learn throughout life could also protect the brain from dementia.

“Although cognitive decline can’t be cured, it may be prevented by implementing activities, which are beneficial to build new neural pathways and connections in the brain, helping to keep the mind sharp and putting it to work,” Dr. Sameea HusainWilson, director of movement disorder neurology at Baptist Health’s Marcus Neuroscience Institute in Florida, told Healthline. “Good choices include puzzles Sudoku, games, music, card games, reading, playing instruments, or practicing hobbies in which the mind must think outside everyday tasks.”

The recent study involved 1,184 participants who were born in 1946 in the United Kingdom. Each participant took two cognitive tests – one at 8 years of age and again at 69 years old.

The researchers found that higher childhood cognitive skills, a higher cognitive reserve index, and higher reading ability were all associated with higher scores on the cognitive test taken at 69 years.

Other findings included:

  • College education played a part in higher scores. Individuals with a bachelor’s degree or higher scored 1.22 points more on average than those without a formal education.
  • Leisure activities also raised cognitive scores. Those who engaged in six or more leisure activities, such as adult education classes, clubs, volunteer work, social activities, or gardening, scored 1.53 points more on average than people who engaged in only four activities.
  • Those with a professional or intermediate level job scored 1.5 points more on average than those with partly skilled or unskilled occupations.

In an editorial that accompanied the study, Michal Schnaider-Beeri, PhD, a professor of psychiatry in the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, said: “From a public health and societal perspective, there may be broad, long-term benefits in investing in higher education, widening opportunities for leisure activities and providing challenging cognitive activities for people, especially those working in less skilled occupations.”

Husain-Wilson suggests the following to keep your mind challenged and slow the progression of cognitive decline:

  • Decrease red meat in your diet and increase seeds, vegetables, and fruits
  • Get regular exercise
  • Engage in mental exercises such as reading, crossword puzzles, art, card games, and arts and crafts
  • Feed your mind-body connection with activities such as yoga, meditation, and social engagement
  • Learn something new, such as learning an instrument or taking on a new hobby

It helps when older adults are proactive in finding ways to socially engage with others.

“Start small; a phone call, text, or note to reconnect with acquaintances and family,” suggests Dr. Sandra Narayanan, a vascular neurologist and neuro-interventional surgeon at Pacific Stroke & Neurovascular Center at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in California.

“Come away from social interactions with a plan to increase engagement (if mutually desirable.) Make plans to follow up,” Narayanan told Healthline. “Don’t assume that someone will reach out to include you, especially if you turned down social interactions in the past.”

“Being actively involved in community resources, such as senior centers helps older adults maintain independence. Engaging in church or faith activities and groups can provide spiritual and emotional support,” added Dr. Estefania Maurer Spakowsky, a physician with AltaMed Health Services Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE).

“A large proportion of older adults have physical and cognitive limitations,” Spakowsky told Healthline. “We can contribute to improving wellness by being mindful of these limitations during family time and social gatherings, as well as include activities that seniors can participate.”

Experts say emotional health and physical health are interrelated and tend to be cyclical. Social isolation can cause depression and depression can contribute to social isolation.

“Depression is significantly higher in the elderly population due to social isolation and contributes negatively on their health. Older adults who are depressed tend to have issues with memory, regularly eating, physical activity, and decreased adherence to medications,” explained Spakowsky. “Empowering and motivating older adults, providing resources to engage in activities and socialize with peers will positively impact their health.”

There are specific things family members can do to help engage their elderly relatives. Narayanan provides some suggestions:

  • Be welcoming and respectful of the older adult’s lived and current experience
  • Be cognizant of barriers limiting desire to participate, such as widowed or single status, feeling like the odd person out, self-consciousness about joining younger groups
  • Work with relatives if there is limited mobility, inability to drive or access transportation, or the need to coordinate outings with medication schedules or medical appointments
  • If possible, bring the activity to the older adult to overcome barriers and minimize absenteeism

“As time passes and mutual engagement increases, the desire to venture out with diverse groups might increase,” added Narayanan