We know that we are living longer and with this new longevity greater risks of dementia loom.
Every one of us, along with national and international experts are continually looking at how the risks can be reduced or how the symptoms associated with dementia can be slowed.
We know that there is no guarantee of preventing dementia. However, research has identified several risk factors such as lifestyle and medication management that may be effective.
Lifestyle choices like smoking, alcohol, physical activity, cognitive stimulation and diet are important to consider. All these are serious and important health factors to consider when looking toward living a longer and healthy life as well as reducing our chances of dementia.
However, the one factor that is garnering earnest interest from researchers and everyday practitioners alike is the lack of social interaction. The seriousness around the effects of social isolation or simply being lonely are significant! A recent study from the Journal of Biomedical Science, Hsiao, et al, articulates this point well, stating “accumulating evidence suggests that both humans and mice have a higher risk of developing AD if they are lonely or living isolated.”
And this is not just for reducing the risks for dementia.
The Washington Post reported recently that psychologist Susan Pinker has researched the impact that human connections have on all aspects of our well-being, including our physical health.
She reports that smoking, drinking, exercise and even heart problems are not predictors of a person’s longevity — a person’s close relationships and social integration are.
“Those with intimacy in their lives, those with support systems and frequent face- to-face interaction were physically and emotionally healthier,” Pinker said. “This face-to-face contact provides stunning ben- efits, but a quarter of the population says they have no one to talk to.”
In an article in The New York Times, Dec. 22, 2016, “How Social Isolation is Killing Us” it was reported that “social isolation is a growing epidemic — one that’s increasingly recognized as having dire physical, mental and emotional consequences.” The percentage of adults who report that they are lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent. The author, Dr. Dhruv Khullar, also reports that loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline in older adults.
Heather Comstock, the dementia care educator for The Hub on Smith’s dementia program, recently completed her certification for engagement for Teepa Snow’s Positive Physical Approach. She returned to Sheridan with the realization that life’s connections are essential to living a meaningful life.
“If I were to sum up what has surprised and inspired me about supporting persons living with dementia, it would be that simply being ‘present’ with someone you know who is living with dementia, just listening, interacting and engaging is the most important action we as a community can commit to,” Comstock shared. “Persons living with dementia are still feeling deeply. They feel all the emotions we do but often and unnecessarily by themselves.”
The evidence is clear, but what do we do about it? Ideally, communities watch over each other and take steps to reduce social isolation and help maintain social connections.
Dementia Friendly Wyoming is dedicated to building a community where persons living with dementia and their care partners are valued and supported and continue to live meaningful lives.
To combat loneliness for older adults Dementia Friendly Wyoming is starting two new programs: Friendly Connector and Friendly Visitors. We know that many elders are socially isolated in their homes and may not have many connections with others in the community. Friendly Connectors, any- one who is out in our community regularly (postal workers, home-delivered meals volunteers, pastors, etc.), may notice changes that may indicate someone that may be at risk. They will be trained to identify risk factors and refer to the GPS (Gathering Positive Solutions) Support Center. From there, connections will be made to many services. Volunteer Friendly Visitors provide friendship, support and engagement for someone living with dementia in our community, which enriches both of their lives.
“Human connection lies at the heart of human well-being: It’s up to all of us — doctors, patients, neighborhoods and communities — to maintain bonds where they’re fading and create ones where they haven’t existed.” (Dr. Dhruv Khullar, The New York Times, December 22, 2016)
This article was written by Kay Wallick, program director for Dementia Friendly Wyoming.