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Alzheimer’s and Social Interaction: Here’s What You Need to Know

By Frances Gatta | March 16th, 2023

Studies show that a person living with Alzheimer’s may benefit from having plenty of contact with friends and loved ones, an active social life and meaningful relationships.

Humans are social beings — and clinical research shows they need a healthy social life to function. Social isolation and loneliness have been found to be tied to health conditions like high blood pressure, chronic stress, depression, sleep problems, cognitive decline, and increased risk of heart disease. Research also suggests that social isolation is tied to a dramatically increased risk of developing dementia. Some studies have found this risk increases by as much as 40 percent. 

Conversely, having strong social connections is tied to health benefits like improved mood, healthy body weight, lower depression symptoms, longer life, and more. 

People with Alzheimer’s may also benefit from an active social life, even though they experience cognitive decline and behavioral and psychiatric symptoms like memory loss, agitation, wandering, aggression, apathy, and irritability that may make maintaining it challenging. 

How does Alzheimer’s affect a person socially?

People with Alzheimer’s disease often struggle with building or maintaining social connections due to their symptoms and the psychosocial issues that come with living with this condition.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive brain disorder that affects brain parts controlling thought, memory, and language. People with Alzheimer’s experience a decline in brain function, causing symptoms like memory loss, learning difficulties, thinking problems, hallucinations, delusions, communication difficulties, and reduced ability to carry out everyday activities. 

These cognitive impairments — coupled with personality, mood, and behavior changes with Alzheimer’s, like apathy, aggression, irritability, anger, anxiety, and depression — can significantly impact a person’s ability to have regular, healthy interactions and engagement with other people. 

For instance, a person in later stages of Alzheimer’s and related forms of dementia may need help holding or remembering conversations. Or, they might struggle to interpret or react to social situations appropriately. Some may even prefer to stay alone or lose interest in interacting with people.  

Even in the earlier stages of the disease, the sheer idea of Alzheimer’s can become fuel for isolation and avoidance of social situations. The stigma, myths, and negative stereotypes associated with Alzheimer’s disease can at once make it difficult for friends and loved ones to know how to interact with someone dealing with a diagnosis, while making it less appealing for people living with Alzheimer’s to spend as much time as they used to with others.  

Why is social interaction important for people with Alzheimer’s?

Despite these obstacles, clinical studies into dementia and social interaction do find that people living with Alzheimer’s stand to benefit from having active social lives and meaningful relationships for improved quality of life. Studies show that these things also decrease the risk of developing dementia and appear to be protective of brain health. 

In fact, according to experts, meeting the social needs of people with dementia is just as vital as catering to their physical needs through medication, nutrition, physical activity, and more.

An article published in the Journal Neurology International highlighted that being socially active may stimulate cognition in people with Alzheimer’s. It cited evidence suggesting that engaging in social activities and having social support is tied to better cognition and life satisfaction. 

A 2020 case report published in the Journal Medicine explored medication-free interventions for managing Alzheimer’s disease. The case report was a patient with Alzheimer’s who showed symptoms including memory impairment, confusion, wandering, and difficulty communicating. She had also stopped engaging in social activities and interacting with her social network, leaving her socially isolated.  

The researchers enrolled her in a community-based dementia social care program. There she received smell therapy, music therapy, art therapy, talking therapy, reality orientation, cognitive training, food therapy, garden therapy, and other drug-free therapy. The program helped to restore her social life and interest in hobbies and social engagements. As her social health improved, so did her cognition and mood while being without medications. 

Likewise, Doug Brown, Chief Policy and Research Advisor at Alzheimer’s Society, commenting on a study that explored ways to improve quality of life in dementia patients, told Being Patient that “maintaining a healthy social life and doing things you enjoy is important for everyone’s quality of life.”  

The same goes for people with dementia: “People with dementia have a right to continue living a life they love.” said Brown.

What is the social brain hypothesis?

“Why do we get a buzz from being in large groups at festivals, jubilees and other public events?,” wrote Alzheimer’s researchers Barbara Jacquelyn Sahakian, Christelle Langley, Chun Shen and Jianfeng Feng. “According to the social brain hypothesis, it’s because the human brain specifically evolved to support social interactions. Studies have shown that belonging to a group can lead to improved wellbeing and increased satisfaction with life.”

Unfortunately though, the researchers point out, many people are lonely or socially isolated. “If the human brain really did evolve for social interaction, we should expect this to affect it significantly,” the researchers noted. 

In their study, published in the journal Neurology, they found that social isolation is linked to actual physical changes in brain structure as well as changes in cognition — the mental process of acquiring knowledge — it even carries an increased risk of dementia in older adults.

Before their study, there was already plenty of evidence in support of the social brain hypothesis. 

For example, one study mapped the brain regions associated with social interaction in approximately 7,000 people, and found that brain regions consistently involved in diverse social interactions were strongly linked to networks that support cognition, including the networks involved in things like memory, emotion and motivation.

How do you meet the social needs of someone with Alzheimer’s?

Meeting the social needs of people with Alzheimer’s is as essential as supporting their physical and mental health needs. Though often overlooked, their social health significantly affects their well-being and quality of life. 

Here are a few ways to promote social activity and meet the social needs of someone with Alzheimer’s.

1. Schedule regular conversations with loved ones

Though people with Alzheimer’s may prefer to be indoors, that shouldn’t stop them from interacting with loved ones as often as possible. Just a few minutes of daily or weekly phone calls with family, friends, and loved ones can benefit their social health too.

You can set up video or audio calls, whichever they prefer, with Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp call, Facetime, or any other app they’re comfortable using.

But virtually connecting can also feel overwhelming too. Sarah Dulaney, a nurse coordinator at the University of California San Francisco’s Care Ecosystem study, told Being Patient, “it’s important to try to help people with dementia participate [in a call] as much as they can — and also recognize when they need rest.” 

You can also encourage loved ones to visit as often as possible. 

2. Dine out

People living with dementia can benefit from opportunities to see new faces, interact with new people, not to mention eating a varied diet. They get to experience all of these things when a care partner or friend takes them to out to eat at new and favorite restaurants. However, carers will want to ensure the restaurant’s ambiance is friendly and comfortable for the person with Alzheimer’s — for example, it should be not to noisy, and nor too dark. Look for places with short to no wait times, and friendly, helpful staff.

3. Pursue a social hobby

Researchers advise that people with Alzheimer’s do things they enjoyed before diagnosis. And it might benefit their social health to participate in these hobbies with people with similar interests. 

If they enjoy reading, dancing, exercising, going on walks, or volunteering, experts recommend that carers and loved ones encourage people living with dementia to pursue those activities after a diagnosis too. For example, they might join a book club, take dancing classes, visit an age-friendly fitness center, or join local clubs like walking groups, birding groups, or volunteer efforts. 

4. Try out an adult day center

People with Alzheimer’s may feel more comfortable connecting with people with similar conditions and in the same age groups in a space that caters to their condition and needs, like an adult day center. Plus, adult day centers create a safe and supervised space for meeting people they can socialize with. 

These centers may offer physical, art, food, speech, or music therapy. They may also assist in meeting the nutritional, medical, fitness, and personal care needs of people with Alzheimer’s while easing caregiver burden.

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