Newswise — CLEVELAND—Last year, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released an advisory labeling loneliness, isolation and lack of connection an “epidemic” in the United States.

Within that public-health crisis, according to recent research by Case Western Reserve University social scientist Ann Nguyen, is that isolation causes cognitive decline—a problem she found is even worse for Black Americans.

But her latest research—based on national data from 2,308 non-Latino, Black seniors (51 and older)—suggests Black Americans with a strong social network of friends were more likely to have healthier cognitive abilities.

She noted it’s already well-documented that Black Americans generally fare worse in measures of health, compared to their white counterparts. 

Nguyen recently shared her research findings with the Cleveland Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (CADRC), of which she is also a member. The CADRC, an interdisciplinary research organization, brings together important research and medical organizations in Northeast Ohio to improve knowledge about the various reasons behind Alzheimer's disease and related memory problems.

Brian Appleby, director of the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center and the Clinical Core Leader at the CADRC, said research and perspective from a social scientist—in addition to the medical community—is vital to address the issue more holistically.

“Social workers are uniquely positioned to assess and affect change at the society level that could be aimed at things like behavioral approaches to prevent these conditions,” said Appleby, who is also a professor of neurology at the university’s School of Medicine. 

As part of her work at CADRC, Nguyen said she’s interested in studying “upstream” factors—preventative measures—in cognitive decline, rather than after patients develop “downstream” medical issues.

"Understanding and addressing modifiable risk factors are essential for eliminating the racial disparities in cognitive health outcomes,” she said. “Social factors are specifically modifiable, meaning that we can change them.”

Journal Link: Annual Review of Gerontology and Geriatrics Vol 41 Issue 1 , Nov 2021