How loneliness can shrink your brain – and 7 easy ways to avoid it

New research has suggested feeling socially isolated may cause your brain to shrink. We explain why, plus some simple ways to connect more with others.

Feeling socially disconnected from friends and family in later life may cause your brain to shrink, a new study has found. The research, published in the journal Neurology, also suggests loneliness could play a role in the development of dementia.

The team of scientists at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, have suggested that increased support for older adults to help them identify and maintain social connections is important. This could help to prevent changes in the brain and reduce the likelihood of subsequent development of dementia, they argue.

Previous research carried out by 28 of the world’s leading dementia experts for the Lancet Commission had already found a strong link between social isolation and dementia risk.

In their 2020 research report, they advised “keeping cognitively, physically and socially active in midlife and later life” to reduce your dementia risk.

This new study offers further insight into the impact of loneliness on brain health.

Older lady sitting alone on a park bench - social isolation and brain shrinkage linkCredit: Shutterstock/Nikodash
Feeling disconnected from others can be harmful for your brain health

What did the research find?

The team examined the brains of 8,896 people who had an average age of 73 and did not have any signs of dementia. They looked at MRI scans of each participant’s brain and each participant had a comprehensive health assessment.

Participants were asked about how often they had contact with friends and family that they didn’t live with. They could choose from these options – daily, weekly, several times a month and seldom.

Those that answered ‘seldom’ had a lower brain volume than those who were most regularly in touch with their loved ones, the study found. Researchers found this led to a reduced volume of white and grey matter in the brains of those who were socially disconnected.

They also noted the reduced volume was most apparent in the areas of the brain – the hippocampus and amygdala – that play a role in memory and are most likely to be affected in people with dementia.

However, the researchers concluded that they could not prove that social isolation directly caused shrinkage or damage to the brain. But Dr Toshiharu Ninomiya, lead author of the study, felt interventions to prevent people feeling socially isolated may make a difference. “These could help to prevent brain volume loss and the dementia that often follows,” he said.

An older father and his son catching up over a coffeeCredit: Shutterstock/Dmytro Zinkevych
Catching up with family members over a cuppa can be a great way to strengthen social connections

We need to ask about people’s social connections

One of the key ways to tackle social isolation as people get older is simply by checking in with them and asking how regularly they see and chat with their friends and family.

“This study adds to the extensive research showing a relationship between social connection and dementia and deepens our understanding of what is happening inside the brain,” says Robin Hewings, director of the Campaign to End Loneliness.

“When we prioritise our relationships we’re doing more than just seeing our friends – we’re safeguarding our future health and wellbeing”

“At the same time, there are a range of practical actions that can be taken by the Government to ensure people do not get stuck in a downward spiral of loneliness that can be very difficult to get out of,” adds Hewings.

“We need to ensure health services ask about social connections and link more people to support in their communities to help them feel less lonely.”

Mixed race middle aged lady catching up with friends with cuppaCredit: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images
Why not swap your morning coffee for a get together with friends?

7 easy ways to connect with others

Need some food for thought on ways to increase your social connections with people you know and those you currently don’t? We’re here to help!

1. Swap your morning coffee for a coffee morning

Have a natter while you grab a caffeine boost and get together with neighbours and friends.

2. Have a hobby? Join the club!

If you love to read, why not seek out like-minded people and join a book club or sign up to a class for a dance you’ve always wanted to learn?

3. Make new plans with old friends

If you haven’t seen treasured friends for a while, why not give them a call and arrange a catch-up?

4. Don’t be shy, say hi

Being sociable really fires up your brain, so try saying hello to someone new today.

5. Fancy a game?

Playing board games or getting together with friends and family for a quiz night can be a fun way to catch up.

6. Invite your neighbour over for a natter

Why not pop the kettle on and have a catch-up over a cuppa?

7. Sign up for an Age UK activity

Local branches of Age UK run a variety of classes and activities. These include walking football groups, coffee mornings, cooking and dance classes and loads more.

Age UK has telephone and in-person friendship services that can help you to connect with others that share your interests or live close by. To find out more, contact Age UK’s freephone advice line by calling 0800 169 6565 (8am-7pm) or visit Age UK

Julie Penfold

Written by Julie Penfold she/her

Updated:

Julie Penfold has been a specialist health and wellbeing journalist for more than 15 years and has been a finalist in three prestigious health and medical journalism awards during that time. She has written for a wide variety of health, medical, wellbeing and fitness magazines and websites. These have included Running, TechRadar, Outdoor Fitness, Be Healthy, Top Sante, Doctors.net.uk and The Guardian’s Social Care network.

  • twitter
  • linkedin