A recent study has found that seniors who were housebound or socially isolated (scientifically called “constricted life space”) were significantly more likely to develop Alzheimer’s Disease or Mild Cognitive Impairment, and experience more rapid cognitive decline, than seniors who got out and interacted more with others.
The study, by researchers at Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago and the Memory Disorders Clinic, Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., was published online in the April 15, 2011 issue the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.
The study evaluated 1,294 community-dwelling seniors in Chicago, from two separate studies of older adults whose health was being tracked over time. At the beginning of this study, none of the seniors showed signs of Alzheimer’s or dementia. The seniors were followed for an average of 4.4 years.
During the study the researchers measured the “life space” (extent of social interaction and getting out from home on a daily basis) of the seniors, as self-reported by the seniors. The development of cognitive decline or Alzheimer’s disease was measured by clinical evaluations of the seniors over the study period. During the 4.4 year study period, 180 of the seniors in the study developed Alzheimer’s Disease.
The study found that, after controlling for demographic factors, including age, sex, race, and education, those who reported that their “life space” was constricted to their home were almost twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s during the study period than those with the largest life space (including getting out of town occasionally).
After controlling for additional factors which the scientists assumed could have accounted for the difference, such as variances in performance-based physical function, disability, depressive symptoms, social network size, vascular disease burden, and vascular risk factors, the association still remained. The finding also remained consistent after excluding persons who had Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) at the beginning of the study and who developed Alzheimer’s Disease in the first 2 years of observation.
The study also found that those with a constricted life space were more likely to develop Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) and experience a more rapid rate of cognitive decline than those with a broader life space.
The study authors concluded that, “A constricted life space is associated with increased risk of AD [Alzheimer's Dementia], MCI, and cognitive decline among older persons.”
Lead author Bryan D. James, a postdoctoral fellow at Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, explained to HealthDay, “People who don’t leave their home as much aren’t engaging with their environment and meeting new people.” “They may not be using their minds as much.”
Still, the study authors cautioned that their study does not necessarily prove that social isolation actually causes Alzheimer’s or dementia. It could also be possible that the development of dementia may be causing the social isolation. Nevertheless, the strong association between social isolation and development of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s remains.
Why does this matter?
Alzheimer’s Disease now afflicts approximately 5.2 million Americans, and that number is expected to grow to as many as 7.7 million by 2030 as the Baby Boom generation ages. Nearly 15 million Americans are currently caring for persons with Alzheimer’s. The statistics are staggering, and have led the Alzheimer’s Association to proclaim that our country is facing an Alzheimer’s Epidemic.
“People are interested in figuring out who’s going to develop Alzheimer’s and new ways to target more people likely to develop it,” study author Bryan James said. “Maybe with the limited interventions we do have available, we can target them toward people who aren’t leaving their homes.”
For more information on Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia, see our resource pages on Alzheimer’s/ Dementia, including:
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