As isolation nears its dreary end, we need a plan for brain health

The pandemic has exacerbated the loneliness and social isolation felt by some older adults. To prevent this from becoming another health crisis, we must facilitate an increase in the physical, cognitive and emotional activity of older adults, particularly those living alone.

Currently, corporations are advertising mindfulness apps like Calm, Headspace, Fabulous, Rootd and Liberate and profiting from the huge uptake by individuals looking to overcome COVID-19 anxiety.

But the focus of mindfulness is less on reducing stress and more on self-reflection. However, people need to complement that self-reflection by reaching including reaching out to engage with family, friends and neighbours with whom you can exchange ideas, concerns and practical matters, and who can also help and encourage you. While not a substitute, having at least one trustworthy and reliable confidante to communicate with routinely (for example, weekly) can make a difference in one’s health.

Brain and genetics research reveals that social activity reduces isolation and depression. “Use it or lose it” is a good principle when it comes to the brain, mind and body. 

It is often said there are two aspects to the mind: emotive, concerned with feeling; and cognitive, concerned with remembering, decision-making and logical thinking. Social interactions require the use of numerous neural networks in your brain as they often involve both the emotive and cognitive aspects. Conversations and activities with friends and family help keep the brain active. Visual, hearing, or mobility problems can impede socialization and lead to isolation, putting people at higher risk of losing these neural networks. This makes it even more important to mitigate risk factors through use of visual, hearing or mobility aids, and to put emphasis on exercising the brain in addition to the body. 

Two recent studies show the importance of social connectedness for brain fitness and realizing the brain’s enduring potential for neuroplasticity. 

The first looked at the significance of social engagement and its connection to brain shrinkage. This study in Shanghai compared groups that either did Tai Chi, walked on their own, had social interaction or had no intervention. MRI assessments at the beginning and end of the study revealed significant increases in brain sizes in the Tai Chi and social intervention groups and a reduction in the group that received no intervention. The Tai Chi group also improved on neuropsychological tests but no differences were observed between the walking group and the no intervention group. This study shows that although brain shrinkage is part of the normal aging process, the memory centre in the brain maintains its size when engaged in social activities.

The second study examined brain shrinkage in adults over 65 enrolled in the Experience Corps, a U.S. program that brings retired people into schools to serve as mentors, to that of adults of the same age who were not involved. Typically, annual rates of brain shrinkage in adults over 65 range from 0.8 per cent to 2 per cent. In this study, the latter group exhibited expected age-related shrinkage in brain size. The participants of the Experience Corps, however, showed an increase of 0.7 per cent to 1.6 per cent over the course of two years.  

Social contact is perhaps even more important for those living with dementia. Research among people with dementia has shown that the rate of cognitive decline is lower among those with more frequent social contacts. Furthermore, the risk of dementia can be reduced by lowering stress, improving sleep and avoiding overuse of drugs, both prescribed and self-prescribed, according to a recent Lancet Commission review of evidence. There is also strong evidence that physical activity reduces the risk of vascular dementia.

Ideally, social engagement should be through paid or voluntary work – the more challenging the better. Many activities can boost your brain’s health and your general well-being, including:

  •   New kinds of work, including a three-day work week, part-time positions, gig work, freelancing and portfolio careers. That is, a variety of roles rather than one job at a single organization.
  •   Diversify your activities by joining organized clubs, courses, interest groups, political organizations, religious gatherings or cooking classes.
  •   Consider joining or starting a group that does not exist in your community and is centered around a common interest, for example, a group of people who want to start hiking for the first time in their lives.

The act of interacting with others calls upon multiple networks in your brain, ensuring the brain’s networks remain active and are thus not lost. The brain’s resilience and reserve are strengthened more through the act of meeting and helping other people rather than by learning a new skill on your own. Not only will these types of social interactions improve cognitive functioning and reduce feelings of loneliness but they will also reduce the rate of shrinkage of your brain.

Therefore, coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, a clear plan is needed to optimize physical health and ensure good vision and hearing to allow people the best opportunity to stay intellectually engaged and reduce isolation and depression.

One prompt and decisive opportunity for action to minimize the effects of the pandemic resides in the fitness industry. Physical activity has the additional benefit of improving our general well-being. The Fitness Industry Council of Canada reports that it represents more than 6,000 facilities across Canada, employing more than 150,000 people. Personal trainers have important skills: emotional intelligence and empathy, motivating clients, understanding that success requires patience and technical knowledge about how the body works.

To highlight its widespread benefits contributing to both physical and mental wellbeing, the fitness industry should change their name to the wellness industry.

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Larry W. Chambers


In addition to being a science advisor to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, Larry W. Chambers is Director, Research and Scholarship of the Niagara Regional Campus, Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, McMaster University, and maintains appointments at Bruyere Research Institute; Faculty of Health, York University; and ICES.

Madeleine Smith


Madeleine Smith is a medical student at the Niagara Regional Campus, Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, McMaster University.

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