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Defy Dementia Episode 2: Live to Be Social – Be Social to Live

Welcome back to Defy Dementia! This exciting new episode explores the role of social isolation and loneliness as risk factors for dementia. Hosts Jay Ingram and Dr. Allison Sekuler talk to Myrna Norman, who was diagnosed with fronto-temporal dementia 15 years ago, and hear about her inspiring journey to overcome self-isolation. Then, they discuss how loneliness physically affects the brain with Dr. Michelle Carlson, professor of mental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Tune in to find out how loneliness and social isolation may be harming you, and how you can take steps to support your emotional and cognitive well-being today.


Key takeaways

  1. Loneliness is the feeling of being alone. You can experience loneliness no matter how many people you know. You can be in a room full of people and still feel lonely. Social isolation is a lack of connections with other people. Loneliness and social isolation are different but closely related.
  2. Loneliness and lack of social contact diminish the brain and increase your dementia risk.
  3. Social interactions can slow or even reverse these brain changes, so take action now if you are experiencing loneliness or social isolation. You can gradually, and with time, work your way up to being more open, meeting new people, and going to new places.

Key highlights

Allison: “Around the world, in large part because of the pandemic, loneliness is being officially recognized as a serious public health risk. In 2021, the Japanese government actually appointed its first minister of loneliness, giving him a mandate to combat social isolation.”

Jay: “Then in 2023, the US Surgeon General declared loneliness an epidemic, asserting that being socially disconnected is as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. His report also said that chronic loneliness and social isolation can increase the risk of developing dementia by about 50% in older adults, even after controlling for demographics and health status.”

Myrna: “I would first of all tell [anyone dealing with a diagnosis of dementia] not to social isolate. That every day, it's important to get outdoors, and not on the concrete sidewalk, but in a little park. Every neighbourhood has a little park not far from them. We need to feel nature. Nature nurtures, and so let's use that.”

Michelle: “When you exercise your brain, your brain is a lot like a muscle. You just can't let certain regions go. They need to be continually engaged. And I think that one of the challenges with social isolation, which leads to loneliness, is that we need to better appreciate that it's just like physical exercise. It needs to be maintained.”



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Learn more about our guests

Myrna Norman is the volunteer coordinator of the Purple Angels support group in Maple Ridge, British Columbia. She was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia 15 years ago. She was given 5-8 years to live, but chose to deal with her diagnosis by becoming more socially engaged.

Dr. Michelle Carlson is a professor in the Department of Mental Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, a core faculty member in the Center on Aging and Health at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and holds joint appointments in the Department of Epidemiology and the School of Nursing. Dr. Carlson studies how social engagement and lifestyle buffer the aging brain and body using wearable technology, geospatial analysis of the built environment, neuroimaging, and interventions embedded within real and simulated worlds. Dr. Carlson’s goal is to foster environments that transcend socioeconomic barriers to safely promote physical, social, and cognitively enriching activity. This work will inform intervention design and social policy to delay dementia and disability, particularly in vulnerable individuals and those at elevated risk for health disparities.

Dr. Carlson has published over 190 peer-reviewed papers and 8 chapters in top neuropsychology, gerontology, and medical journals and books. She has served on the editorial board of the Journals of Gerontology: Medical Sciences for 12 years. She is principal investigator of three R01s and received more than $8 million in grant funding as principal investigator from the National Institute on Aging (NIA), the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), the Department of Defense (DoD), and other prominent foundations.