24 June 2020

How are healthy older people influenced by a lack of social contact and relationships? This is to be studied by George Pavlidis in a three-year project funded by FORTE – the Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare. “Social exclusion has consequences, particularly when it persists for a significant period. Unfortunately, older people are in greater hazard to be socially excluded than other age groups”, he says.

George Pavlidis’ research project is highly relevant in a time when the spread of the coronavirus has turned life upside down for many people, not least for those older than 70 years. This group has been recommended to stay at home and retain physical distance from others, increasing the threat to become socially isolated as well. But being socially isolated is not a new challenge for the older population.

“In the current situation, the concept of physical distancing has become extremely obvious, but challenges pertinent to a lack of human contact is nothing new for the older population. It’s just that we are talking more about it now.”

Effects on cognitive abilities

George Pavlidis is to spend three years looking into the effects that exclusion from social relationships has on older adults’ cognitive abilities, and in turn to their abilities in living independently and in engaging to productive behaviours, for example working, grandparenting, volunteering and care giving.George Pavlidis. Photo credit Thor Balkhed

Cognition is the sum of mental processes that allows us to receive, manage, interpret and use information in order to interact successfully with the environment. Therefore, cognitive abilities are highly relevant to our ability in engaging in productive behaviours or to live.

Most of our cognitive abilities decline as we age, with the degree of decline being influenced by the surroundings in which we spend any significant amount of time. Interacting frequently with others provides a cognitively stimulating environment, which in turn discourages cognitive decline with ageing.

“A situation without regular contact with other people does not provide sufficient cognitive stimulation. This has consequences for preventing a cognitive decline of a significant degree, so significant that it may prevent us from being able to live independently or to engage in productive behaviours. The case of dementias is a vivid illustration of that”, says George Pavlidis.

The older person's contribution to society

But even milder losses in ability to cope with everyday life plays a role in how actively we can contribute to society, through employment or voluntary work, says George Pavlidis. 

“Older people carry out a lot of voluntary or unpaid work that is vital for the society. In many countries where two working parents is common but adequate child support services is not, the older generation is crucial to ensure that family life functions normally.In addition, most of the long-term care needs in older age is provided informally by a spouse.”

George Pavlidis is interested in how such contribution and strengths of the older can be protected and capitalized by society. Previous research has focussed primarily on older people who have some form of cognitive impairment or disease, such as dementia. The cognitively unimpaired have not been studied to the same degree, even though most of the older population is, in fact, cognitively healthy, George Pavlidis points out. 

“That’s the value of this project. We will move the spotlight from illness in older years to the protection of the potential that the older represent, who’s contribution benefit not only the individual but also the whole society.” 

The project will analyse information collected in several large surveys, including SHARE – the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe.  

Translation by George Farrants.


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