Researcher profile: Studying social isolation

From the Summer 2016 edition of Care and cure magazine, hear from Isobel Evans, a first year of a three-year funded PhD studentship. She's based at the University of Exeter as part of the Cognitive Function and Ageing Study Doctoral Training Centre.

I have always enjoyed learning about how the brain works, and what happens when it starts to work less well with age, or things go wrong due to illness or injury.

My first experience of dementia was when one of my grandparents' friends was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. At the time, I didn't really know much about dementia. A few years later I began volunteering at a memory café. As people with dementia and their families shared their personal experiences with me, it became clear that there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the causes and prevention of dementia. This is what motivated me to join dementia research, to try and help make a difference in these people’s lives.

Prevention research aims to reduce the number of people who develop dementia. This is important, as there is currently nothing available to prevent or cure dementia. One approach to prevention research is to change aspects of an individual’s lifestyle that are thought to affect the risk of dementia, such as diet, leisure and physical activity, social participation and smoking. 

Some of these lifestyle factors are thought to protect against cognitive decline by building cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve refers to the idea that a combination of activities and experiences throughout life create a buffer against cognitive decline. This reserve may be in the form of a set of skills or strengthened communication pathways in the brain. Increasing involvement in activities that protect against cognitive decline, and reducing risk factors, should enhance cognitive reserve and reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. For example, being more mentally and physically active should increase cognitive reserve, while stopping smoking should reduce risk.

My research focuses on social isolation as a risk factor for cognitive decline. We hope that this research will establish whether social engagement enhances cognitive reserve and helps to maintain healthy cognition. Social isolation could potentially be reduced by developing interventions which, if effective, may help to prevent or delay cognitive decline.

My research will use data from the Cognitive Function and Ageing Study Wales (CFAS-Wales), involving 3,700 people over the age of 65 living in Wales. Participants in CFAS-Wales were interviewed when they joined the study and then again two years later. This large-scale database will allow me to examine whether social isolation is related to cognitive impairment, and whether people who are isolated have a higher risk of developing cognitive decline or dementia over the next two years.

Working within the field of cognitive health and dementia is really exciting as there is lots of new research being completed, which suggests new directions and sometimes more questions that need answering. I am extremely grateful to Alzheimer's Society for supporting my work. I am hopeful that my research will contribute to extending the available evidence about prevention and inform efforts to reduce the number of people living with dementia.