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World-first study links social health with dementia


Morgan Liotta


10/02/2021 3:28:09 PM

The benefits of social wellbeing are an ‘often neglected’ intervention for people with neurocognitive disorders.

Two older people dancing.
Epidemiological studies show that neurocognitive disorders are associated with poorer social support, greater social isolation and loneliness.

A ‘loneliness epidemic’ has been used to describe modern-day society, particularly following COVID-19 and the resulting lockdowns.
 
A recent (pre-COVID) report found that one in three young Australians feel lonely, while other household survey data shows that around one in 10 Australians aged 15 and over report lacking social support, and one in two report they feel lonely for at least one day each week.
 
No longer a novel concept, the health benefits of social connection are far reaching, with GPs and other healthcare providers incorporating social prescribing into routine care, and calling for inclusion in the Government’s 10-Year Primary Health Care Plan.
 
The World Health Organization’s recently updated definition of health now includes social health, alongside physical and mental health. Social participation is also included in its social determinants of health statement.
 
And while recognition of the importance of social health is gaining traction, there has previously been a lack of research into the evidence for preserving or enhancing social health for people living with neurocognitive disorders, such as mild cognitive impairment and dementia.
 
However, researchers from UNSW Sydney’s Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA) have changed that, via a breakthrough study identifying mechanisms to reduce loneliness and improve social participation and belonging for people with dementia.
 
‘Previous reviews looking at social health interventions focused solely on healthy older adults, excluding people living with dementia,’ lead author Dr Suraj Samtani said.
 
‘Also, most interventions for people living with dementia focus on improving cognitive function or physical health, with the social wellbeing of these people often neglected.’
 
Social connection is a basic human need, and individuals with neurocognitive disorders are at high risk of experiencing loneliness and social isolation, the authors highlighted, and addressing the social health needs of people living with such disorders is a priority.
 
The study examined recent interventions across multiple settings ­– from communities to assisted living facilities – with social health outcome measures. Music and/or dance groups significantly improved social participation and belonging for people with dementia, indicating the role of social health to help reduce loneliness.
 
According to the authors, larger trials with multiple social health outcome measures are required to further investigate the social health benefits of exercise, cognitive/multi-component and community social group interventions.
 
‘Although more quantitative research is required to evaluate the efficacy of community social groups, exercise groups and cognitive interventions, we certainly discovered that both music groups and dance groups showed promising results for improvements in social health of participants,’ Dr Samtani said.
 
‘Future interventions involving people living with dementia should include not only cognitive and physical health outcome measures, but also measures of social health – such as social participation and loneliness.’
 
The review also looked at studies involving socially assistive robots and other technology. Although they produced mixed results, Dr Samtani said it warrants further exploration.
 
‘The evidence for the efficacy of socially assistive robots in improving social health is mixed,’ she said.
 
‘[But] we recommend the co-design of social robots with people living with dementia to best meet their social health needs.’
 
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dementia loneliness social health social prescribing


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