Social health expert and Clinical Psychologist at UNSW Sydney’s Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA), Dr Suraj Samtani, has been awarded a Post-doctoral Fellowship to test whether enhancing social cognitive skills can slow the rate of cognitive decline and dementia.
In Australia, one in five older adults report problems with loneliness. People who have subjective cognitive decline or are living with early stages of dementia often experience changes in social cognitive skills that place them at substantially elevated risk of loneliness and depression. A negative cycle develops where people who have these cognitive concerns have a much greater tendency to lose social cognitive skills, impacting their ability to develop and maintain quality interpersonal relationships. As a person’s condition worsens, social networks tend to shrink, leading to greater isolation and depression, and ultimately putting them at greater risk of further cognitive decline and dementia.
The Fellowship, awarded by the Dementia Australia Research Foundation, launches an Australian-first collaboration between leading researchers at CHeBA and The University of Queensland, and Silverchain - one of Australia’s largest in-home aged care providers – to address the lack of treatment available to directly target social cognitive impairments.
“Improving social cognitive skills may directly address an underlying issue related to social withdrawal and loneliness in older adults with cognitive concerns,” explains Dr Samtani.
“Existing interventions focus on abilities like memory and language in older adults with cognitive concerns, but no comprehensive treatments are available to target social aspects such as interpreting social information, behaving appropriately in social situations and interpreting social information. This includes identifying subtle facial expressions, understanding jokes or sarcasm, adhering to social norms and being assertive.”
Professor Julie Henry at UQ’s School of Psychology emphasised the importance of social cognitive skills for mental health and wellbeing.
“Because social cognitive skills are critical for successful interpersonal communication, early intervention has the potential to meaningfully improve the social engagement, broader community participation, mental health, social relationships, and quality of life of many older Australians,” Professor Henry said.
The Fellowship will expand upon a successful pilot program that Dr Samtani and his team co-designed with Dementia Australia Dementia Advocates and which saw significant improvements in social cognitive skills such as understanding oneself and others and communicating with others.
The team will now conduct a randomised controlled trial to test if the program helps older adults with cognitive concerns to stay socially connected, feel more confident in social situations and contribute to activities that are meaningful for them and have the potential to improve their quality of life. The trial will also test if the program helps older adults with cognitive concerns maintain their overall cognition.
“This partnership with Silverchain will enable us to reach older adults with cognitive concerns living in urban and remote areas,” says Dr Samtani. “Ultimately our intention is to train Silverchain staff to provide the intervention to thousands of older Australians living at home as part of routine care – to improve mental health and social connection across this demographic with the goal of improving cognitive health.”
The Chair of the Dementia Australia Research Foundation, Professor Graeme Samuel AC, said with dementia affecting almost 50 million people worldwide, research into dementia is now more urgent than ever.
“This project will provide us with valuable insights into how enhancing or maintaining social cognitive skills can improve the lives of people living with dementia,” Professor Samuel said.
Silverchain Director of Research Discovery, Professor Tanya Davison, said Silverchain welcomed the opportunity to help older Australians develop critical social cognitive skills to remain engaged in their communities and stay at home.
“This project is the beginning of a new partnership for Silverchain, UNSW CHeBA and The University of Queensland. It signifies our shared commitment to improving the quality of life and social connections of older Australians,” Professor Davison said.
“The intervention developed by the research team can be accessed online by older people across Australia. This addresses an important barrier for those living in regional or remote areas or unable to travel to traditional services and is consistent with Silverchain’s commitment to be leaders in home care that we offer to more than 115,000 clients each year.”
CHeBA Co-Director Professor Henry Brodaty explains that a fundamental aim of the program is to reduce the human and social costs associated with dementia, as well as generate impact to reduce the economic costs of this health challenge.
“The current cost of dementia internationally is estimated to be $818 billion annually and in Australia alone, the estimated cost in 2018 was over $15 billion. By 2056, this figure is projected to increase to $36 billion,” says Professor Brodaty.
The intervention is intended to be made freely available for use by all Australians.
The Dementia Australia Research Foundation acknowledges the generosity of donors and partners who contribute each and every year to support dementia research. Since the Dementia Grants Program started in 2000, almost $30 million in funding has supported more than 350 projects.
Heidi Douglass, Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing, 0435 579 202