Social Capital and Aging Brain Health

December 7, 2020

Social Policy Sociology

Nicole Anderson explores the relationship between social capital and the health of the brain as it ages.

Disabling dementia, mostly from Alzheimers (60-80%) but also from other cases, is common enough so that most people have some acquaintance with it. However, experts on health policy clearly need a more thorough understanding of its medical science. In her chapter Social capital and Aging Brain Health in the Elgar Companion to Social Capital and Health, Dr. Anderson, a cognitive neuroscientist and neuropsychologist, describes here Alzheimer’s (AD) genetic basis, the identified dementia risk factors emanating from our very early years in our lifespan, through midlife, and in later life.

 The genetic component of the most common variant of AD, where the symptoms tend to appear in the early 70s, is identified in 50 percent of patients with the disorder.  Clearly AD has an inherited component. But research also finds experiential risk factors that have influence.

Seven examples of these include physical factors (diabetes mellitus, midlife hypertension, midlife obesity, smoking, physical inactivity) and cognitive/psychological factors (low education, depression). Just these seven have been shown to account for nearly 30% of global cases. Other more indirect influences occur such as cognitive reserve, the beneficial experience gained when one learns to pivot from a usual cognitive method to something new.

Early Life Social Capital Contributions to Later Cognitive Health and Dementia Risk

Research findings describe risks of later dementia include a childhood spent in lower social economic status than others in the community. The same occurs when assessed in both wealthy countries and developing countries, even when high SES people and low status ones are from the same culture (Zeki al Hazzouri et al, 2011). Studies also report higher risks of dementia can arise from experiencing factors associated with systematic racial discrimination and from abusive relationships received within the family. Lower education and poor nutrition when young are also harmful factors. 

Midlife Social Capital Contributions to Cognitive Health and Dementia Risk

Higher SES in the midlife years improves cognition, and living in cities advantages cognition compared to rural living (Chiao, 2017). Working in occupations with social elements or in more cognitively complex occupations helps (Rebled et al, 2016 and Rebled et al, 2016). Cognitive activities such as playing music, reading, playing games, engaging in social activities also lowers dementia risks (Verumi et al, 2014; Schreiber et al, 2016). 

Later Life Social Capital Contributions to Cognitive Health and Dementia Risk

Enjoying a good socioeconomic position in the community is correlated with lower risk of later dementia. Stable social connections are beneficial, such as living with your spouse versus living alone (Yeh and Lo, 2004). Family and friends may also help to provide a sense of life satisfaction (Gau et al, 2007). Trusting the people in your community is important, as is volunteering for local projects, and the evidence suggests that you need only volunteer a few hours a week to reap the greatest benefits (Anderson et al, 2014). 


Thus while physical and complex cognitive experiences during life provide major contributions toward lower dementia risks, social factors also add substantially to these benefits. Social experiences in the very early years, during midlife, and the elderly are very important. Many of these beneficial social factors seem possible to improve with community policies. References referred to are provided more fully in the chapter.

Nicole Anderson researches the Aging Brain in her practice in neurological science and cognitive neuropsychology. She attained her graduate degrees in Toronto, Canada, where she continues to practice.

Elgar Companion to Social Capital and Health edited by Sherman Folland and Eric Nauenberg is out now.

Read chapter one free on Elgaronline

Why Trust is Good for your Health by Martin Ljunge. Read Martin Ljunge’s chapter Trust promotes health: addressing reverse causality by studying children of immigrants 

The Importance of being Social –Sherman Folland investigates the influential role social capital plays in mental health and physical wellbeing.

Religious Capital, Social Capital and Health Ephraim Shapiro and Chen Sharony explore the link between religion and health

Does Health Affect Social Capital Hope Corman, Kelly Noonan, and Nancy E. Reichman examine the relationship between health and social capital.

Social Capital in Epidemiology, Martin Lindström explores the link between religion, social capital and health.

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