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Why keeping connected is so important – and where to start

Most of us already know that keeping connected is important for our emotional health. But if you’ve gone through the Think Brain Health Check-in, it might have surprised you to learn that your social connections are also important for keeping your brain healthy.

If you’re reading this there’s a strong chance that, like me, you value the idea of looking after your brain health. My own Check-in results showed that keeping connected is an opportunity for improvement for me, and perhaps you’re also in the same boat.

What does research tell us about keeping connected?

In 2020 an important report on dementia risk estimated that if we could end social isolation entirely, we could reduce the number of people who develop the condition by 4%. That would be 40,000 fewer people living with dementia in the UK.

Being socially isolated means having few people to interact with in our lives. This can lead to a feeling of loneliness, but the two things aren’t always connected. For example, some people might have only a handful of social contacts but not feel lonely at all. On the other hand, it’s possible to feel lonely even when you’re surrounded by other people.

What’s behind the link?

The reason for this link isn’t yet completely clear, but researchers have put forward some theories.

One possibility is that early symptoms of the diseases that cause dementia may prevent people from being socially active. We know that diseases like Alzheimer’s begin to cause changes to the brain years before symptoms like memory loss start to show, and this can cause very subtle changes in behaviour early on. If this was the case for some of the people who took part in these studies, social isolation might have been a result of their symptoms, rather than a cause.

Another leading theory is that spending time with other people can help us stay mentally active too. We’ve probably all experienced this at one time or another: a stimulating conversation with someone we like is not only a fun way to spend time, it gets our cogs whirring too. And keeping our brains active can help build ‘cognitive reserve’ – a type of resilience that helps the brain withstand damage for longer in the face of diseases like Alzheimer’s. This shows how closely two of our three simple rules for brain health – ‘stay sharp’ and ‘keep connected’ – are linked.

The impact of COVID-19 on social contact

Like many people, the pandemic brought home to me just how important our social connections are. I am quite extroverted, but the forced isolation associated with COVID-19 affected my ability to spontaneously connect with people.

Of course, measures like lockdowns and social distancing were important for stopping the spread of the virus. But the impact on our social lives was huge, and for many people it’s taken time to recover our normal routines.

Like me, some people may still be looking for ways to reconnect with others – and those who were asked to shield because of an underlying health condition may not yet feel comfortable mixing in large groups. If you’re in this camp, or you know someone who is, a video or phone call can still be an excellent way to stay connected.

How can I find people in my area to connect with?

Some people may have an easier time than others building and maintaining a social network. You might already have an active social life, with lots of contact with family and friends. But if, like me, you’ve been inspired to meet new people or try something new, here are some tips to help you get started.

  • Join a club. Getting involved in a group based around your hobbies is a great way to meet people who have similar interests to you. For me, joining a book group has introduced me to some wonderful people, and I always look forward to our monthly meetings, listening to ideas and opinions from such a diverse group. Whether you’re looking to join a photography club, a regular gaming night or a local choir, you can find lots of interest-based groups local to you on Do IT’s online platform.
  • Take a class. Is there something you’ve always wanted to learn, or a subject that piques your curiosity? For me, it’s ceramic pottery, so I’m enrolling in evening class to learn the craft and meet new people who share my interest. Many council websites carry lists of local adult learning centres to get you started.
  • Put it in the calendar. It happens to us all: when life gets busy, it can be hard to make time to see people regularly, especially when our friends are busy too. Why not set a regular date to catch up with friends – whether it’s a weekly virtual chat or an in-person coffee each month, you’ll always have something to look forward to.
  • Volunteer for a charity. Offering up your time for a cause close to your heart won’t just make you feel good, you’ll meet others who care about the same things too. Here at Alzheimer’s Research UK, we always need people to join our Cheer Squads, Fundraising Groups and more.

About the author

Sara Imarisio

Head of Strategic Initiatives, Alzheimer's Research UK

Sara is Head of Strategic Initiatives at Alzheimer’s Research UK and manages the charity’s Drug Discovery Alliance. The Alliance brings together dementia researchers and drug discovery experts in the pharmaceutical industry, to ensure that discoveries in the lab benefit people affected by dementia as quickly as possible. Before joining Alzheimer’s Research UK, she was an academic researcher working on neurodegenerative diseases.

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