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  • Sarah Whitebloom

Social Isolation and Dementia

Social isolation of the elderly appears directly linked to the apparent international Alzheimer’s/Dementia epidemic. Statistics show that only certain countries have been severely impacted by the ‘epidemic’ – those where higher levels of older people live isolated lives.

While everything from red wine to oily fish to exercise and Sudoku is touted as warding off Alzheimer’s, figures show the international dementia ‘epidemic’ appears strongest in nations where older people live alone, outside of a family group.

According to World Health Organisation figures, Alzheimer’s and Dementia are now high up the list of causes for over 70s deaths in Europe and the Americas. The latest data shows, dementia was the second biggest killer in the US region and third in Europe.

According to statistics from WorldHealthRankings, which includes WHO stats and individual country information, the US comes second in the international dementia league, with nearly 46 deaths from Alzheimer’s per 100,000, while the UK comes 14th with a death rate of 24.35. Britain is behind Canada, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and France but ahead of other key comparable nations.

It is unclear why the US, the UK and such other countries are now recording such high rates of dementia deaths, even compared with similarly developed nations such as Japan, Germany, Italy, Austria, Portugal and Ireland, where the numbers of over 80s are similar.

The method of reporting deaths could have an impact, but so too could the social models countries.

In a 2012 study, the think tank the International Longevity Centre, compared the social models of ten countries, looking in particular at multi-generational living. According to the ILC report, only three per cent of older French people live with their children, compared with around six per cent of Dutch pensioners. WorldHealthRankings, show them to have death rates from dementia of 25.62 and 29.32 respectively. Meanwhile, the ILC found, around 2 per cent of older white British citizens live with a grandchild, compared to 11 per cent of their non-white counterparts. According to the WorldHealthRankings figures, Britain’s dementia death rate is 24.35 – compared with 17.70 in our closest neighbour, Ireland.

Meanwhile, the ILC found, close on 40 per cent of Japanese households had an elderly member and more than 90 per cent of Singaporean households are multigenerational. Death rates from dementia for these two countries are 4.23 and 0.91 respectively. You don’t have to be Einstein to draw some conclusions from this.

The countries which the ILC identified as having low rates of multi-generational living, France, Holland and Britain, had high rates of death from dementia. The countries with the lowest incidence of dementia deaths, had the highest rates of multi-generational living.

Experts often advise older people to keep social and maintain friendships as a way of warding off dementia. But, as people become older this is increasingly challenging. Older people’s friendship groups are often considerably affected by the death of friends and family. But also it becomes more difficult to access social groups and opportunities for our oldest people, who may experience mobility issues and other health problems. And, anyway, bingo once a week with a lot of older people is no substitute for being an integral part of a vibrant social group.

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