A recent study has found that small changes in an older adult’s social life might be an early warning sign of dementia.
The results of this study, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, point towards new ways in which clinicians can identify at-risk individuals before their symptoms become too severe.
The research team, led by Ashwin A. Kotwal, M.D., of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, looked at data from the National Social Life Health and Aging Project, or NSHAP. The data contained within this sample included 3,310 people between the ages of 62 and 90 years, located throughout the country. All participants were screened for signs of cognitive decline.
From this screening, researchers divided the participants into three groups:
- People with no cognitive impairment
- People with mild cognitive impairment, also known as MCI
- People suffering from dementia
Participants in all three groups answered questions about the size of their social networks, how much support they received from other people, the amount of social strain they experience and how frequently they attend community events. They also answered questions about how often they communicate with family and friends as well as with whom they discuss important issues.
The results? Kotwal and colleagues found that participants with cognitive impairments tended to have smaller, more interconnected social networks than participants without cognitive impairments. These social networks also contained a larger-than-average percentage of relatives (73 percent versus 65 percent).
Men and women with cognitive impairments also appeared to experience gender specific social consequences. .
Men with mild cognitive impairment and dementia felt that they received more encouragement from their spouses compared to men with normal cognitive functioning. Men in this group also reported socializing with friends and neighbors nearly 15 percent more than healthy men.
Women in this same group, meanwhile, reported a drop in support from friends. They also failed to report an increase in socialization with both friends and neighbors.
Both men and women with mild cognitive impairment or dementia participated less frequently in community activities such as volunteering or clubs.
What does this mean?
It’s not surprising that both mild cognitive impairment and dementia have a significant effect on a person’s social sphere. Cognitive impairments can make socializing with strangers more difficult, but may result in greater support from family members.
“Such new circumstances may require more densely linked, family-centered networks to help monitor and support the health of individuals showing signs of even early impairment,” Kotwal explained.
Kotwal also suspects that – for whatever reason – people are more likely to “check in” on men with cognitive impairment than women with similar conditions. Clinicians may want to make sure that their female patients are receiving proper social support.
“We hope that these findings will help clinicians better identify social vulnerabilities in those at risk for early cognitive loss. The information could help ease the transition to overt dementia for both patients and caregivers, should progression occur,” said Kotwal.
Sovereign Health Group’s professional staff offers numerous, evidence-based programs designed to benefit our patients. Prior to admission, all patients receive an accurate assessment of all diagnosed conditions as well as any underlying conditions that may be further impacting their mental health. Our clinicians address the full spectrum of each patient’s needs and craft an individualized treatment plan that can involve one-on-one therapy, group therapy, yoga, meditation, art therapy, equine therapy and wellness training. For more information, contact our 24/7 helpline.
About the author
Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for Sovereign Health, where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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