HEIDI DOUGLASS | h.douglass@unsw.edu.au

Researchers at UNSW Sydney’s Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA) have pinpointed mechanisms to reduce loneliness and improve social participation and belonging for people with dementia.

Social connection is a basic human need and individuals with neurocognitive disorders such as Mild Cognitive Impairment or dementia are at high risk of experiencing loneliness and social isolation.

The review, published in Current Opinion in Psychiatry, used research published in Medline, Medline ePub ahead of print, Embase, PsycINFO, CINAHL, Emcare and Cochrane Library of peer-reviewed journal articles published between January 2019 and June 2020.

“Previous reviews looking at social health interventions focused solely on healthy older adults, excluding people living with dementia,” said lead author Dr Suraj Samtani. “Other reviews focussed on social connectedness as a protective factor and social isolation as a risk factor for cognitive decline or dementia in heathy older population.”

"Also, most interventions for people living with dementia focus on improving cognitive function or physical health, with the social wellbeing of these people often neglected."

Dr Suraj Samtani, Lead Author

Co-author and Co-Director of CHeBA, Professor Henry Brodaty, said addressing the social health needs of people living with dementia is fundamentally important. 

"The World Health Organisation has updated the concept of health to now include social health alongside physical and mental health. Epidemiological studies reveal that people living with dementia are at a higher risk of poor social health."

Professor Henry Brodaty, CHeBA Co-Director and Co-Author

Within the healthcare context, social health is largely defined as the ability to fulfill obligations or social roles, maintain autonomy despite a medical condition, and to participate in social activities.

The review examined recent interventions with social health outcome measures, including interventions across multiple settings from communities to assisted living facilities. The review revealed that music and/or dance groups significantly improve social participation and belonging for people with dementia and can help to reduce loneliness.

"Although more quantitative research is required to evaluate the efficacy of community social groups, exercise groups and cognitive interventions, we discovered that both music groups and dance groups showed promising results for improvements in social health of participants."

Dr Suraj Samtani

The review also addressed studies involving socially assistive robots and other technology, which produced mixed results but warrants further exploration.

“The evidence for the efficacy of socially assistive robots in improving social health is mixed,” said Dr Samtani.

“We recommend the co-design of social robots with people living with dementia to best meet their social health needs.

“Future interventions involving people living with dementia should include not only cognitive and physical health outcome measures but also measures of social health – such as social participation and loneliness.”

“Music and dance help people living with dementia connect with others,” said Dr Samtani.

"Music is so powerful that it even helps people living with late-stage dementia who cannot speak. It is beautiful to see people come together – to laugh, smile and feel a sense of community. That social connection is part of being healthy."

Dr Suraj Samtani