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Video chats can enhance brain functioning in socially isolated elderly people   

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 55 million people worldwide have dementia and it is currently the seventh leading cause of death. Social isolation is a key risk factor and because of this, interventions that enhance social interaction in the elderly could be crucial in reducing dementia occurrence.

With the rise of social networking, it is worth investigating whether online interactions can be just as effective in protecting against social isolation as those in-person. In research published in November 2023 in The Gerontologist, Dodge and colleagues provided insight into this by using randomised control trials and found that the introduction of regular video chat conversations enhanced brain functioning in socially isolated elderly people.

Their study, known as I-CONECT, was a Phase II randomised control trial of 186 participants aged 75 and older recruited in the US with either normal cognition or mild cognitive impairment. Participants were then separated into the experimental group or the control group. In the experimental group, participants had 30-minute-long online video chats with trained staff four times a week for 6 months, which was changed to twice a week for another 6 months. The chats involved the use of pre-specified topics and questions with more than 150 themes including historical events, social issues and travel, to encourage natural conversation. The control group did not have these video chats, though both groups had a 10-minute phone call per week to assess any potential changes in health/social activity.

Increased brain activity within the dorsal attention network

It was found the experimental group had a mean global cognitive function (a measure of brain functioning) 1.75 points higher than the control group. Those with normal cognition in the experimental group also had higher semantic fluency scores (related to verbal functioning) by 2.56 points, and there was evidence for increased brain activity (within the dorsal attention network) for the experimental group compared to the control group. However, this brain activity analysis had a small sample size, and these results should therefore be considered with caution.

The study highlights the importance of social interaction in keeping the brain functioning, which can protect against conditions such as dementia and lead to better quality of life. Dodge and colleagues indicate that conversations online also have a positive effect and have suggested that home-based behavioural interventions may be useful for combatting cognitive decline. Home-based interventions could be especially useful for individuals who may find it difficult to leave the house, such as those with disabilities (which increase with older age).

The number of dementia cases is rising across the world due to the ageing population. GlobalData epidemiologists estimate that the numbers of diagnosed prevalent cases of dementia in men and women in the 16 major markets (16MM: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa South Korea, Spain, the UK and the US) aged 60 years and over will increase from 24 million in 2024 to 31 million in 2032. Additionally, GlobalData epidemiologists estimate that the number of prevalent cases of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia for those aged 60 years and over in the 16MM, will increase from 14 million in 2024 to 16 million in 2028. Considering this, paired with the rise of social networking, video chat initiatives could offer a modern solution for reducing dementia occurrence.

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