Social Networks are Vital for Brain Health

Social Networks are Vital for Brain Health

Social networks sustain us throughout our lives and especially as we age. Our networks compress when our children leave home, we retire from jobs, or we move to new homes.

We enjoy interactions with others and those interactions have helped us maintain our emotional balance. During COVID-19, that balance is uneven at best. The strength and support we got from our family and friends are a shadow of the past. We long for the days when we can gather and maybe even hug.

Being lonely and isolated increases mortality rates. As well, research shows that poor social networks increases dementia risk by 60%.

Single and Living Alone

Living alone has had a profound impact on one’s social network.  Research shows that having a spouse and children has a consistent protective effect against rates of depression. The link between depression and dementia, sadly, continues to be borne out in research studies. So, it is not surprising that being single and living alone is one of the strongest indicators for the development of dementia. In fact, it almost doubles.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I will be running out to get married. Or try to convince my 18 and 16 year old to live with me forever. What it does mean is that I , and all of us during COVID-19, must think about our social networks in a more mindful way.

Of course, the quality of our relationships with spouse and/or children impacts the effectiveness of the social network. As we age we get support and find meaning in those relationships. But when the relationships are bad they can have a negative effect. In fact, research shows that negative interactions with children can increase the rate of dementia.

So, close positive relationships are important to reduce dementia risk. But when dementia comes, those relationships still have a role to play. My mom’s relationship with her family, her friends and her senior living community had a sustaining impact on her quality of life.

But just being a part of the social network of your loved one is not sufficient. Interestingly, even with close relationships, individuals with dementia reported that they wanted more social interactions. Focusing on social activities and interactions is important.

Social Activities

The number, quality and variety of our social activities and interactions suggests the health of our social network. Individuals who participate in social, leisure and work activities have a lower incidence of dementia. Ideally, the person is engaging in activities that stimulate five key areas of the brain: language and music, visual/spatial, computation, critical thinking, and memory. The mental stimulation gained from these activities can help the individual build cognitive resilience so that, as  research shows, we can buffer against strokes or diseases like dementia.

When individuals are robust and cognitively well, it is easier for them to self-motivate around social activities. All of us, including our mom’s and dad’s, should look at the strength of our social network. Even if your mom or dad is still healthy, it is a good idea to look at the strength of their social network.  What is the frequency and quality of their interaction?

Do your interactions leave you energized and optimistic? And, when they don’t, is it because you have chosen to give because giving is one of the best ways to feel a sense of purpose, positively correlated with a reduced risk for dementia.

Are you or your loved one(s) depressed?

Depression is like a dark cloud that slowly but persistently lowers on us to destroy our emotional well-being.  It drains away our pleasure in life and can lead us to feelings of despair and hopelessness. One of the natural outcomes of depression is withdrawal, leaving individuals isolated and without support.

During COVID-19, depression can be particularly devastating to all of us. We know that isolation and loneliness contribute to cognitive decline. We also know that depression tends to last longer in seniors than in younger individuals. One of the contributing factors for the length of depression can be a lack of physical exercise. As so many of our seniors are isolated at home or in senior living communities, they are missing their physical therapy or exercise classes.

Seniors tend to be less physically active than younger individuals. In fact, research shows that seniors on average watch more than eight hours of television a day. That keeps them sedentary, which is very bad for mental health. During COVID-19, the news is hyper-focused on death, disease and despair. Seniors in isolation are hard pressed to find a news segment that will leave them hopeful, intellectually unbiased and give them a sense of purpose ~ all components of having strong mental health. Still, during COVID-19, how do we expect them to reduce their TV viewage when our collective need for information is at an all-time high.

Untreated depression can make individuals more vulnerable to developing other serious health conditions such as heart disease or immune disorders. There is also a close correlation between depression and dementia. Depression can lead to anger, irritation, or high levels of anxiety. This can lead to relationship breakdowns as families are robbed of the joy and support of important family members.

Finally, the risk of suicide is high in seniors and is particularly high for men. Suicide not only ends a life prematurely, but is completely devastating to family members. It leaves a lifetime of pain, hurt and guilt.

Factors that Increase the Risk of Depression

Seniors have risk factors that are unique to them. Chronic pain that is not well managed can have a debilitating effect on mental health. So too, can interactions between medications. Seniors tend to be on multiple medications, making it important that discussions with the doctor and pharmacist occur before adding more.

Certain illnesses are also associated with depression. Heart problems, low thyroid activity and a lack of vitamin B12 or folic acid can negatively impact mental health. Additionally, low blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer and diabetes are associated with depression in seniors.

In senior years, our support network comes under strain. We lose family and friends to relocation and to death. If we don’t make a concerted effort to add new people to our social network, it can dwindle to the point where we feel isolated. Your mom or dad may feel isolated.  Do you?

Signs that you, Mom, Dad or a Loved One Might Be Depressed

What are some of the common warning signs that your mom or dad might be depressed?

You may see emotional or cognitive changes:

  • Confusion or memory troubles
  • Preoccupation with perceived failures or personal inadequacies
  • Significant drop in self-confidence or self-esteem
  • Crying for no apparent reason

Mental Stimulation. Meaningful Engagement.

Cognitive stimulation between adults, together engaging in novel and complex activities, specific to their abilities has never been more important than now. Use it or lose it is not a myth as University of Hamburg research has shown.  Our brain literally prunes away synaptic connections we no longer use. It is why most of us would do worse on an ACT or SAT exam if we took it today. It is imperative that we are all being exposed to novel content every day, enabling our brains to form new synaptic connections.

We need to be as focused on exercising our brains as we are on exercising our bodies. During the process of aging, everything we do NOT exercise will generally atrophy faster, whether it is our brain or our body.

Oddly, in America particularly, we are not ashamed to admit we have a physical personal trainer. Many of us are proud to show how well we are doing physically and how hard we are working, how much weight we have lost or how we performed in a recent event.

We consider our commitment to strong physical health to be a sign of pride. But cognitive health has a different sign ~ almost a stigma. It is as if by exercising our minds, we are somehow admitting we need to exercise our brain.  But we do!  We need to change the paradigm where cognitive stimulation is seen as only appropriate for people with Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, Lewy Body and more. We need to change the paradigm where activities that keep our brains strong are in fact as, or more, important if in keeping our bodies strong?

Consider Diet

Diet also plays an important role in mental health. Deficiencies in essential nutrients can negatively impact the brain. When one lives alone, it is easy to decide it is not worth cooking for one. I have learned to make sure my freezer has single serving meals as a great way to avoid food spoilage and to help me easily eat healthy.

I have also made a habit of always looking at the nutrients table on the package of any food I buy. I have been most stunned by the amount of foods that have meaningful amounts of sugars. One immediately thinks cereals because of the bad press they got years ago, but have you considered the amount of sugar in marinara sauces, convenient freezer meals, or jelly? I try to buy the meals that are easy to make but loaded with nutrients. I admit, sometimes I crave unhealthy food. For me, it helps to acknowledge the craving and indulge knowing it was a “hall pass” and I will be back to my healthy habits immediately!

Drinking Water is a Good Drinking Problem

As my mom battled with Lewy Body, my children and I noticed that she would never ask for something to drink, but if we offered her a glass of water, she would smile, take a sip and say, “Oh, thank you!”  It was if we had been keeping water from her as a treat. Of course we were not!

Our brains literally lose their thirst trigger as we age. It is further compounded when the person has Alzheimer’s or any kind of dementia.  I worked with Mom to create a habit where every morning, she would fill a one quart bottle with water and she would work throughout the day to ensure she drank it by day end. Having a water bottle that we regularly fill and consume can ensure we win the battle over the diminishing thirst trigger! The rule of thumb is one cup for every 20 pounds of body weight.

– Janet Knupp, President & CEO, Fit Minds


Due to COVID, Fit Minds has found a way to provide cognitive stimulation virtually, even for seniors with advanced dementia.

Contact us today to sign up: contact@fitminds.net | (813) 282-8282

Please view this one-minute video to learn more, and consider how Fit Minds can support your loved ones.

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