A recently released study from the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health suggests a connection between loss of contact with neighbors and higher risk of dementia among the elderly who survived natural disasters.
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal (PNAS). It is the first study that delves into dementia as a potential health risk after a calamity.
“In the aftermath of disasters, most people focus on mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” Dr. Hiroyuki Hikichi, lead author of the study, observed.
“But our study suggests that cognitive decline is also an important issue. It appears that relocation to a temporary shelter after a disaster may have the unintended effect of separating people not just from their homes but from their neighbors—and both may speed up cognitive decline among vulnerable people,” Hikichi added.
The research was undertaken in Japan. It examined medical data from elderly residents of the coastal city of Iwanuma prior to and after the tsunami in 2011.
It found that the residents who moved to temporary housing after their homes were significantly damaged or totally destroyed registered the highest levels of cognitive decline. The study also showed a strong dose-response association with subjects whose homes were more severely damaged experiencing more severe declines in cognitive functioning. Depression and withdrawal from their social network seemed to play a role in the relationship between the two elements.
However, the loss of relatives or friends appeared to not have an effect on cognitive abilities.
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