Research partnership aims to boost social skills to reduce cognitive decline

Aged care provider Silverchain and leading researchers have formed an Australian-first collaboration to slow the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

Aged care provider Silverchain and leading researchers have formed an Australian-first collaboration to slow the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

Dementia Australia has awarded social health expert and clinical psychologist at UNSW Sydney’s Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing Dr Suraj Samtani a post-doctoral fellowship to test whether enhancing social cognitive skills can delay the rate of dementia.

Dr Suraj Samtani

Dr Samtani’s research will bring together CHeBA, in-home aged care provider Silverchain and The University of Queensland to address the lack of treatment available to directly target social cognitive impairment.

“This partnership with Silverchain will enable us to reach older adults with cognitive concerns living in urban and remote areas,” said Dr Samtani.

The intention of the research is to train Silverchain staff to provide intervention to thousands of older Australians living at home as part of routine care so as to improve mental health and social connection with the ultimate goal of improving cognitive health.

Silverchain director of research discovery Professor Tanya Davison said the provider welcomed the opportunity to assist older Australians to develop critical social cognitive skills to remain engaged in their communities and to stay in their homes.

Professor Tanya Davison

“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.”

People who have cognitive decline or who are living with early stages of dementia often experience changes in social cognitive skills that place them at a substantially elevated risk of loneliness and depression.

As a person’s condition worsens, social networks tend to diminish, leading to greater isolation and loneliness, which puts them at further risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

“Improving social cognitive skills may directly address an underlying issue to social withdrawal and loneliness in older adults with cognitive concerns,” said Dr Samtani.

While existing interventions focus on abilities like memory and language in older adults with cognitive concerns, no comprehensive treatments exist to improve social skills 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,” said Dr Samtani.

Professor Julie Henry at UQ’s School of Psychology said it was important to address cognitive decline sooner rather than later. “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.”

A pilot program conducted by Dr Samtani and his team – and co-designed by people living with dementia – has already recorded significant improvements in the social skills of older people with cognitive impairments.

The team will now run a randomised controlled trial to test if the program helps older adults with cognitive impairments to stay socially connected, feel more confident in social situations and contribute to activities that are meaningful to them and have the potential to improve their quality of life.

Professor Graeme Samuel

With dementia the leading cause of death among women – and the second leading cause of death among men – in Australia, chair of the Dementia Australia Research Foundation Professor Graeme Samuel said research into the condition 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.”

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Tags: Centre for Healthy Brain ageing, dementia-australia, dr suraj samtani, Professor Graeme Samuel, silverchain, tanya davison, uoq,

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