18th Aug 2020

COVID-19 FAQ: Does social isolation during lockdown affect the brains of the elderly?

18th Aug 2020

Curated by Endre Szvetnik

Social distancing and shielding measures (asking vulnerable people to isolate in their homes) during the COVID-19 pandemic can cause secondary risk to elderly people.

Social isolation and loneliness is an additonal risk in

Social distancing and shielding measures (asking vulnerable people to isolate in their homes) during the COVID-19 pandemic can cause secondary risk to elderly people. In many countries, research has found that a significant proportion of the elderly population lived in social isolation even before the pandemic - as many as 1 in 4 in the US. For many older people who live alone, social contact can come from community events, shopping or going to a place of worship – but these activities have often been restricted in response to COVID-19. Being isolated and feeling lonely in turn has been linked to chronic diseases, psychiatric disorders and the risk of dying early. Scientists have warned that keeping shielding measures for the elderly in place after lockdowns have been largely lifted, could put them at risk of vascular and neurological diseases, cognitive impairment and even Alzheimer’s disease.

What’s the evidence of changes in the brain due to social isolation? A recent four-year study found that among elderly people who reported living in isolation and experiencing a sense of loneliness, verbal fluency and the ability to remember things had declined more than in those, who managed to keep up social contacts.  Studies also suggest that isolation and loneliness can lead to actual physical changes in the brain. The Berlin Aging Study found that people who felt particularly lonely had less grey matter in parts of their brains than others. These areas included the hippocampus, which is important for learning and memory, and the amygdala, which plays a role in processing emotions. Finally, there is an interesting link between the sense of isolation and inflammation. A recent meta-analysis found higher concentrations of the inflammatory signalling molecule, IL-6 and C-reactive protein (involved in the inflammatory response) in people experiencing loneliness. Higher levels of these two biomarkers have been associated with more severe cases of COVID-19 (read our earlier FAQ) but no relationship has been established between loneliness and susceptibility to more serious cases of the illness. Still, the body of research suggests that the cognitive effects of social distancing and shielding measures on the elderly should be taken into account when designing strategies to protect them from COVID-19.

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Curated by

Endre Szvetnik

Endre Szvetnik is Senior Editor at Sparrho. Endre works with Sparrho Heroes to curate, translate and disseminate scientific research to the wider public.

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