S3E5. Isolation vs. Engagement

We were out to dinner with two other couples. I wanted to join the conversation, but when the current speaker finished talking, someone else jumped in before me and changed the subject. Having lost the opportunity, I leaned over my bowl of pasta and tried to slurp a mouthful without spraying red sauce all over my white sweater.

*  *  *

I’ll be the first to admit that social engagement is my weakest suit among the 5 pillars of brain health (exercise, diet, sleep, cognitive challenge, and social engagement). If I weren’t married to Sally and she didn’t schedule us to be with friends and family on a regular basis, I’d probably meet criteria for a hermit or recluse. That’s why I keep an eye out for research that might provide insight into what is an acceptable level of social engagement and what, for that matter, is even considered a social engagement.

In the scene I described at the top of this post, I was out with people, yes, but what if I hadn’t said anything at all the entire evening? Does it count as social engagement if you are with people but don’t talk? Does the mere presence of other people trigger whatever mechanisms are protective against dementia? Or does it require the full deployment of cognitive skills like listening for subtext, being tactful, reading faces, and spinning humor from previously unconnected snippets of conversation? In other words, did I get social engagement credit for my dinner the other night even though I didn’t talk a lot? Would I get credit if I went out by myself and interacted with the waitress? Is that enough to stave off cognitive decline?

I talked about this at length in S1E30: People Who Need People. Recently, though, it seems as if the research effort has shifted from how social engagement is protective to how social isolation is a risk factor. It’s an important difference.

In a study released last month, researchers found a 27% increase in dementia among older Americans who were socially isolated. Social isolation was defined as having few relationships and few people to interact with regularly. The study measured this based on whether or not participants lived alone, talked about “important matters” with two or more people in the past year, attended religious services, or participated in social events. Participants were assigned one point for each answer that reflected social activity, and those who scored a zero or one were classified as socially isolated.

That’s a low bar that I can pass as long as Sally is around! In fact, a 2017 study separated out the effect of being married from other forms of social engagement and found that marriage was protective against dementia but the extent of your social networks was not. The inference was that it might be loneliness that is more determinative than frequency of contacts. 

Interestingly, a separate study showed that talking on the phone and texting reduces social isolation. The Luddite in me has so far resisted the cell phone’s siren song, but in the pursuit of brain health, I just might have to consider taking up texting at some point in the future.

Another study highlighted the advantages of socially engaging with people of different generations. I’m guessing that doing so forces you to assume different roles, with each one stimulating somewhat different brain regions. If this is the case, grandparents who live near their kids have a big built-in advantage.

Isn’t research fascinating? I’m really looking forward to studies that tease apart the unique contributions of loneliness, isolation and social engagement to your risk of developing dementia.

Finally, a recent large-scale study out of China suggests that social engagement is helpful but may not be necessary if you engage in a number of other protective measures.

The researchers focused on six modifiable lifestyle factors (which should all be familiar to regular readers of this blog):

  • Physical exercise: Doing at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week.
  • Diet: Eating appropriate daily amounts of at least 7 of 12 food items (fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, dairy products, salt, oil, eggs, cereals, legumes, nuts and tea).
  • Alcohol: Never drinking or drinking occasionally.
  • Smoking: Never smoking or being a former smoker.
  • Cognitive activity: Exercising the brain at least twice a week (by reading and playing cards or mah-jongg, for example).
  • Social contact: Engaging with others at least twice a week (e.g., by attending community meetings or visiting friends or relatives).

It turned out that people living lifestyles that included at least four healthy habits were less likely to progress to mild cognitive impairment and dementia. So it seems it’s possible to protect yourself even without a strong social calendar.

This gives me great hope as I definitely pass muster for at least 5 out of the 6 factors…but I’m still going to try to engage more when Sally schedules me, just in case!



  1. ginismith40 says:

    Really interesting essay!! 


    div>Seems to me a lot of peop

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Leighton Everhart says:

    Hi – I am sure you are familiar with the Harvard Adukt Development Study, the so called “Happiness Study”. After 80 year study of three generations and 1300 participants it concludes that warm interconnections with other people predicts how long you stay healthy and how long your brain will stay sharp. You can find these good cojnections in many ways and places.

    I really enjoy your blog – thank you for sharing the results of all your research and experiences

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yup, the Harvard study is the gold standard. Without a doubt, inter-connectedness is a good thing!


  3. Andy Howard says:

    Comment not related to this particular topic, but encroaching geezerdom generally.

    Was watching local news a couple of days ago, with a feature about the Boat and Sportsman show currently at the fairgrounds. Announcer read a promo as a visual appeared on the screen for ‘Kokanee Jim’, who would give a talk at the show.

    KOK-a-nee is a type of salmon, which anyone here in NW would/should/does know. Not once, but twice, the TV announcer referred to him as ko-KAN-ee Jim, probably wondering why this guy had such an odd nickname.

    This verbal/cultural transgression bugged me so much that I actually looked up the station’s website, found the ‘Contact Us’ link, and began to compose a nasty message.

    Alan Matthews —
    It’s pronounced KOK-a-nee.
    It’s a type of salmon, since you clearly have no idea.
    If you’re gonna work here, get a clue.

    I should mention that during the news broadcast I had just finished enjoying a stiff pre-prandial libation, so perhaps my mental guardrails were somewhat lowered…
    also, the day before I had reluctantly gone to see OTTO, the Tom Hanks ‘geezer-predictably-redeems-himself’ movie, so, such sympathetic synapses likely were already pre-primed…

    Somehow I had a flash of self-realization, and managed to stop myself before hitting the Send arrow.
    Just that morning I had mentally mocked an even-older friend, who said he was going to make an angry phone call to the local PBS station for changing its schedule, or at least for making such changes hard to find.

    In a lucky instant I saw the juxtaposition of our actions. and slammed on the brakes, thus narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with full-blown geezerdom. Will I be so lucky the next time?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nice catch…looks like you’ve still got it!

      When Sally feels the compulsion to correct somebody’s error, we call it a ‘citizen’s arrest’ after Gomer Pyle (https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=andy+griffith+citizen%27s+arrest&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8#fpstate=ive&vld=cid:f82ea72e,vid:DR2CLgszaPo).

      I’m not promising anything, but this might have planted a seed for a ‘Man Yells At Cloud’ blog post. 😀


  4. M.C. McCoy says:

    Have Sally schedule a morning cup a Joe chat with me sometime

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s