Does Social Interaction impact our brain health?

Researchers have outlined a healthy diet, cardiovascular exercise,  and quality sleep as methods of preventing Alzheimer’s disease. But what about socializing; can social interactions prevent dementia?

The short answer is YES! Staying socially connected helps facilitate and preserves cognitive function. Social interactions are like mental exercises as they require our brains to work and form connections.

In one study, "social interaction" included activities like reading the newspaper, trying new things, having an active approach to life and maintaining an active social life. When I think of socializing, my mind conjures memories of fun nights with friends, or Sunday dinner with the family all gathered around the table.

Being connected to others socially is widely-considered a fundamental human need. Just as every human requires food and water to develop, function and thrive, we require connection and human contact—it is crucial to both well-being and survival.

The importance of social interaction is not to be underestimated. According to Mark Robinson, the chief officer of the non-profit Age UK Barnet, “Loneliness is proven to be worse for health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” Robinson said. Extended feelings of loneliness can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, chronic inflammation and even dementia. It strikes people regardless of age, gender or situation in life.                                                         

Unfortunately, loneliness is a sad reality of modern life with as many as 1 in 4 elderly Canadians reporting feeling lonely. One of the most common causes of loneliness is social isolation, which occurs when an individual has a restricted social network and limited social contact.          

One recent study found that people who have more support in their lives or a stronger social network, as evidenced by their social environment, have a lower chance of developing memory-loss symptoms. Social activities can also help people reduce stress and anxiety, as well as boost mood and keep relationships strong, which is what ultimately leads to lower blood pressure levels. 

If you are unsure where to start, ask yourself “what interests me?”. Be open to new experiences, including joining a group or club. Maintain old friendships and make new ones. Stay social through work, volunteer activities, travel, hobbies, family and friends.

Here are some great tips on how to cultivate social interactions to keep you mentally sharp.                                    

Wandering during Dementia

Imagine going for a walk during the day, getting lost, and not being able to find your way back home. Or one of your loved ones wanders out in the middle of the night with no coat or socks. This is a reality the people living with dementia and their caregivers face. 

Wandering is a common behaviour for people with dementia and can occur for numerous reasons, including confusion, delusions, escape from a real or perceived threat and agitation.

It can be very scary for all involved and may lead to stress and concerns for safety.  Wandering may result in highly dangerous situations including elopement, in which the person leaves an area and is unwilling or unable to return. Six in 10 people with dementia will wander.

The easiest way to put yourself in the shoes of someone that has dementia was excellently described in an article on Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation website.

For the wanderer himself, the experience is much like going out into a mall parking lot and not knowing where you parked—without knowing why he’s out there.
— Maria Wellisch, R.N., vice president of corporate education for Morningside Ministries in San Antonio, Texas. 

Figuring out why a person living with dementia wanders can be difficult, because each person is different. We do know that wandering is a direct result of physical changes in the brain. Research has determined that it is more common in the middle or later stages of dementia, although it can occur at any point during the disease.

The risks of wandering can be minimized through proactive steps, strategies and services.

Here are 10 ways to prevent wandering

What causes Alzheimer's Disease?

There are a number of theories as to what causes changes in how the brain works and which of these changes leads to or causes Alzheimer's disease. Scientists do know that it is breakdown in a part of the brain's processes interferes with its ability to function effectively.  

Two abnormal structures that are accepted as indicators of Alzheimer's disease are:

  • Amyloid plaques- dense protein deposits that form outside and around nerve cells in the brain. Whether they are a cause or a by-product of Alzheimer's disease is not yet known. Are thought to cause damage to nearby nerve cells.
  • Neurofibrillary tangles - inside the affected nerve cells are twisted strands of fibrils called tangles. These tangles appear to destroy the cells internal structure. 

As cells are damaged by Alzheimer's disease, the functions controlled by the affected parts of the brain, such as memory, language, problem solving skills, become impaired or lost all together. The nerve cells stop working, lose their ability to communicate with other nerve cells and the die. As the nerve cells die, the brain shrinks is size and weight.

Over time this disease affects different areas of the brain. Alzheimer's affects each person individually because of the person's personality, personal history and life experiences. As the disease unfolds however, it follows a specific pattern for most people.

Learn more about Alzheimer's and how it affects the brain.


With Dementia, A Cup Of Tea Is Not So Easy

My family is of British heritage so having a cup of tea in my house growing up was customary. Unfortunately, I am not sure if I tasked my mum with conducting this tradition today, she would remember all the steps required to complete it.

That is because a seemingly menial task, like making a cup of tea, is actual a complicated series of activities undertaken by the brain to turn a simple idea into a completed action. Different parts of the brain have to work together to control thinking, learning and remembering. 

The brain has 100 billion nerve cells (neurons). Each nerve cell connects with many others to form communication networks. The networks are responsible for the way the brain's messages are relayed and form the basis of memories, thoughts and feelings.

For someone suffering from dementia, amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles deprive the neurons of oxygen, rendering them unable to communicate, and eventually leading to the death of the nerve cell. As the nerves cells die, the brain shrink resulting in simple tasks in daily life like brushing one's teeth becoming too convoluted. 

A simple example from daily life that shows how functions controlled by different parts of the brain work together is the task of making a cup of tea.

First you have a thought, I feel like having a cup of tea. Now a whole series of activities have to happen in different parts of the brain before you can enjoy that cup of tea.

The brain has to:

  1. switch on your motor to make you get up and go to the kitchen;
  2. remember where the tea bags are stored;
  3. recognize what container looks like and understand that the label has a connection to the contents;
  4. recall and understand entire sequence of actions for making tea
    (i.e., grab a cup, locate a teaspoon, put the tea bag in the cup); 
  5. connect the visual image of the tap with the activity of running water;
  6. know the right amount of water has to be measured;
  7. know how to turn on the kettle;
  8. exercise patience while the kettle to boils;
  9. recognize when the procedure has finished; 
  10. know that the boiling water has to be poured over the tea bag and left to steep.
  11. know to remove tea bag from the cup; 
  12. remind you to put in milk and sugar if that is your preference; 
  13. tell you to raise the cup up to your mouth in order to drink; and
  14. tell the part that controls the reflex action of swallowing to function correctly.

And now you have your cup of tea to enjoy! Not as menial of a task after all.

Alzheimer's Disease affects not only the individual's ability to initiate and follow a process like this, but also the ability to recognize that a process like this if required.

So next time you go to make your morning pick-me-up, remember how lucky you are to have the mental capacity to be able to complete

To learn more about how dementia affects the brain, take a tour.