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Social interactions and Dementia - What's the link?



Humans are adept at forming groups. We form kinships through family, school, work, local communities, religion, country, etc. We like to stay close and engage with our fellow beings. Neuroscientists have found that social exclusion can trigger the pain matrix in our brains. To use the philosopher Martin Heidegger's observations - the world around you is a large part of who you are. The self doesn't exist in a vacuum.


Study of social interactions and dementia


Researchers have been studying the impact of social relationships on mental health and wellbeing. Studies have demonstrated the negative effects of low or no social engagement on our minds. One such study found a higher correlation between developing Alzheimer’s disease and loneliness. Other research managed to establish a link between frequent social interactions and better cognition.


Some of these studies were observational in design - with limitations in establishing causal links between social interactions and incidence/progression of dementia. Others that were randomized controlled trials (RCTs are the gold standard in establishing causality) were either not based on longitudinal studies or had a small sample size.


The above limitations notwithstanding, clinicians and medical reports broadly advise the need to improve social interactions and stay actively engaged with our friends and family.


However, with the onset of dementia this can become hard for those diagnosed with the condition as well as their caregivers. For example, people with dementia become more reclusive due to fear of (or inhibitions from) not being able to recall words or express themselves in front of others. Friends and normal social interactions that occurred prior to the diagnosis can also reduce as others might not feel comfortable dealing with people with dementia.


Under such circumstances, the role of the caregiver to facilitate as many interactions as possible and encourage their loved ones to mingle becomes even more crucial.


6 ways to keep yourself and your loved one social engaged


So what should a caregiver do to increase social engagement of their loved one?


Here are a few tips:


  1. Take your loved one to a social day program typically run in memory cafes or day care centers, where there will be plenty of opportunity for you and your loved one to speak with other families

  2. Schedule ahead of time lunch or tea sessions with friends or neighbours. Planning ahead will not only give you more time to prepare for this meeting but can also be an interesting topic of conversation with your loved one

  3. Schedule frequent video calls with other members of family, especially children whenever possible

  4. Look for walking clubs or fitness centers for elderly in your neighborhood. This can be a great way to combine physical and social activities for you and your loved one, while allowing the family to get out of the house for a change

  5. Participate in dementia support group sessions organized by charities/non-profit organizations in your community. While some people with dementia (and caregivers) are hesitant to speak about their own affairs in front of strangers, many support groups meet frequently resulting in the members getting to know each other, trust each other more and begin to learn and have fun in these meetings.

  6. Join a trip to a local museum or places of interest. This can be a fun day out with the potential of reliving many memories


Keeping socially active is an important pillar of care for a person with dementia. We have written earlier about the benefits of creating a plan of care that is balanced and multi-dimensional as a key strategy for caregiving.


Loneliness and reduced social interactions can be detrimental to the health of people living with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD). Research is pointing us to the benefits of keeping both people with dementia and their caregivers talking, meeting and seeing others as perhaps an easy and effective caregiving strategy.



References


1. Impact of social relationships on Alzheimer’s memory impairment: mechanistic studies, Ya-Hsin Hsiao et al, Journal of Biomedical Science, 2018


2. One is the deadliest number: the detrimental effects of social isolation on cerebrovascular diseases and cognition, Friedler B et al, Acta Neuropathol. 2015


3. Loneliness and risk of Alzheimer disease, Wilson RS et al, Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2007

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