Social isolation ROBS memory and may lead to dementia

Social isolation robs you of memory and could lead to DEMENTIA as scientists warn lonely pensioners lose up to a fifth of their brain power every two years

  • Researchers studied data on more than 11,000 English people over 50
  • Every two years, participants rated their social isolation and did memory tests  
  • The loneliest men lost 18% of their memory over two years, findings show 
  • Women who experienced the most drastic changes in socialising also lost 18% 
  • Rate was similar to that seen in people before they are diagnosed with dementia

Social isolation causes memory loss in older age and may lead to dementia, research has shown yet again.

Loneliness is known to be connected with fading memory. But for the first time, researchers were able to spot patterns. 

Data from more than 11,000 English people over the age of 50 was studied by the team at London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

Every two years between 2002 and 2008, all participants had been quizzed on their social interactions and had a memory test.  

The findings show memory declined by up to a fifth – 18 per cent – every two years in those most affected by social isolation. 

Social isolation causes memory loss in older age and may lead to dementia, research has shown yet again. Stock photo of a lonely elderly woman

Dr Sanna Read, from LSE’s Care Policy and Evaluation Centre and lead author of the paper, said: ‘In some ways our findings are good news since improving older people’s social contact as a way to prevent or slow memory decline is easier than if it were the other way around.

‘And finding any preventable factor that can improve people’s later lives is especially important since there is currently no cure for serious memory loss, such as experienced by someone with dementia.’  

One in six people over the age of 80 have dementia, charities say, a figure expected to rise.

The study used data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA). It involved 6,123 women and 5,110 men.  

Over a six-year period, the participants were asked about social isolation every two years based on five questions.


One minute of exercise every week is enough to bring health benefits to people over the age of 65, according to new research.

The study by Abertay University in Dundee indicated one weekly session was enough to produce improvements in blood glucose control and general mobility.

Groups of 65 to 75-year-olds with sedentary lifestyles took part in training sessions for the research either once or twice a week for eight weeks.

Participants were asked to cycle as hard as they could for six seconds on stationary bikes before resting for at least a minute.

The process, known as sprint interval training (SIT), was repeated until they had exercised for a total of one minute.

While those participating in the twice-weekly sessions observed a greater improvement, those taking part in the single session also observed change. 

Dr John Babraj, who led the study, said: ‘We’ve found that SIT, whether it’s done once a week or twice a week, improves the ability to get glucose out of the system.

‘Importantly, they also observed a difference in general function, greatly improving their ability to do everyday tasks such as getting up to answer a door and walk up and down stairs.

‘These are major issues for older people. As we lose physical function, we start to become socially isolated, and as we become socially isolated our quality of life declines significantly.’

They were asked whether they lived alone, had less than monthly contact with someone either face-to-face, over the phone or by email, and whether they were part of any clubs.

They answered either yes or no, with a high isolation score being five, and a low score being zero. 

Memory was tested with a word list, in which the participants learnt and then recall 10 unrelated words.

The team calculated how levels of social isolation and memory loss change over time. 

They found that isolation precedes memory loss—rather than the other way around. Memory loss is known to reduce socialisation, with those diagnosed with dementia often losing friends.

The paper, published in Journals of Gerontology, found that both men and women were affected, but in different ways.

Men with high levels of social isolation experienced subsequent memory decline between each phase.

For women it was not the overall level of lack of social contact, but rather increases in isolation that were important. 

Men who were ‘highly isolated’ experienced a memory decline of 18 per cent over two years, compared to a six per cent decline among men whose scored ‘average’ on a scale of isolation. 

For women it was more relative—when isolation increased by two points on the 0-5 scale, women’s memory declined, on average by 18 per cent over the next two years. 

This compared with memory decline of four percent in women whose social isolation score moved by 0.2 points. 

The rate at which memory declined in those socially isolated was similar to the rates found among people with progressive memory decline prior to the development of dementia, the researchers said.     

Older people who are diagnosed with the disease typically see their memory fade by 12 to 30 per cent over two years. 

In comparison, people experiencing ‘normal ageing’ without social isolation undergo a two to four per cent decline in memory every two years. 

The number of men who were highly isolated was low, and their isolation scores changed little over time.

The researchers speculated this may be because women live longer, therefore are more likely to end up alone than men who live with their partner.

However, women who were highly isolated became less isolated over the next two year period, suggesting something compensated for the losses in social contacts. 

Regardless of these recuperative bounces they became more isolated over the total 10-year follow-up period.  

Dr Read said: ‘Social contact is hugely important for older people, not just to stem the tide of the memory loss, but for overall well-being.

‘With population changes—fewer people are having children and more people are living alone—it’s important that we look at what can be done to tackle this issue.

‘On a positive note our research seems to suggest that improvements can be made by just improving the frequency, and not necessarily the quality, of social contact—although we do need to look at this area in more detail.

‘And when dealing with an older person who is worried about their memory, it’s easy for a doctor to ask a patient how often they see other people as part of their daily lives. This information could be useful for a “social prescription” to tackle isolation.’

Half a million of older people do not see or speak to anyone for more than six days a week, according to Alzheimer’s Society.

The UK charity has long stressed that lacking social connections can damage a person’s health as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.


Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of neurological disorders


Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of progressive neurological disorders (those affecting the brain) which impact memory, thinking and behaviour. 

There are many different types of dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common.

Some people may have a combination of types of dementia.

Regardless of which type is diagnosed, each person will experience their dementia in their own unique way.

Dementia is a global concern but it is most often seen in wealthier countries, where people are likely to live into very old age.


The Alzheimer’s Society reports there are more than 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK today, of which more than 500,000 have Alzheimer’s.

It is estimated that the number of people living with dementia in the UK by 2025 will rise to over 1 million.

In the US, it’s estimated there are 5.5 million Alzheimer’s sufferers. A similar percentage rise is expected in the coming years.

As a person’s age increases, so does the risk of them developing dementia.

Rates of diagnosis are improving but many people with dementia are thought to still be undiagnosed.


Currently there is no cure for dementia.

But new drugs can slow down its progression and the earlier it is spotted the more effective treatments are.

Source: Alzheimer’s Society 


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