Social Isolation and Cognitive Function in Later Life: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

J Alzheimers Dis. 2019;70(s1):S119-S144. doi: 10.3233/JAD-180501.


Background: There is some evidence to suggest that social isolation may be associated with poor cognitive function in later life. However, findings are inconsistent and there is wide variation in the measures used to assess social isolation.

Objective: We conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis to investigate the association between social isolation and cognitive function in later life.

Methods: A search for longitudinal studies assessing the relationship between aspects of social isolation (including social activity and social networks) and cognitive function (including global measures of cognition, memory, and executive function) was conducted in PsycInfo, CINAHL, PubMed, and AgeLine. A random effects meta-analysis was conducted to assess the overall association between measures of social isolation and cognitive function. Sub-analyses investigated the association between different aspects of social isolation and each of the measures of cognitive function.

Results: Sixty-five articles were identified by the systematic review and 51 articles were included in the meta-analysis. Low levels of social isolation characterized by high engagement in social activity and large social networks were associated with better late-life cognitive function (r = 0.054, 95% CI: 0.043, 0.065). Sub-analyses suggested that the association between social isolation and measures of global cognitive function, memory, and executive function were similar and there was no difference according to gender or number of years follow-up.

Conclusions: Aspects of social isolation are associated with cognitive function in later life. There is wide variation in approaches to measuring social activity and social networks across studies which may contribute to inconsistencies in reported findings.

Keywords: Aging; cognition; cognitive reserve; social isolation.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Activities of Daily Living / psychology
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / psychology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Cognitive Reserve / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Memory / physiology
  • Quality of Life / psychology
  • Social Isolation / psychology*