Erasmus MC researcher Isabelle van der Velpen studied brain volume over time. It turned out that the brain of people who experienced less social support shrank slightly faster than the brain of people who experienced more social support. She also looked at brain volume in married people and people who had never been married. Married people had an average of 8.27 ml more brain volume than unmarried people. Van der Velpen published her findings in the scientific journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.
With her research, Van der Velpen is trying to find out why lonely people are more likely to develop dementia. ‘As you get older, your brain shrinks. But in people suffering from dementia, the brain cells diminish to such an extent that the brain no longer functions properly.’ Logically, Van der Velpen started her research by looking at the human brain.
But do her findings demonstrate that loneliness causes dementia? That conclusion cannot yet be drawn according to Van der Velpen: ‘There are indications that your social health influences your brain, but further research into the underlying mechanisms is needed to establish a causal relationship. If you feel lonely, for example, it can be harder to take care of yourself. That in turn affects your lifestyle and how much stress you experience. It’s all interrelated.’
In any case, she is pleased with the sudden interest in social health in the past year. ‘The social component in medical science has been overshadowed for a long time. Suddenly, because of the lockdown, it became extremely relevant. I would like to encourage everyone to take extra care of themselves and each other in these challenging times.’
Van der Velpen is affiliated with the Rotterdam Study, a long-term study in which data is collected from the residents of the Ommoord district of Rotterdam. Since 2005, the study also involves taking MRI scans of the participants’ brains. Van der Velpen linked the scans to interviews on social health held every five years.