Study of Health Impact of Socially Engaged Meals Among Older Adults

Posted on: 22 January 2014

Can nutritious and socially engaging meals mitigate against age-related declines in cognition, frailty and quality of life for older adults and help them maintain their independence in their own homes for longer? That’s the question being asked in a new research project by researchers at the Neuro-Enhancement for Independent Lives (NEIL) Programme at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience.

Physical health, mental health, and social engagement with life are the three core aspects of healthy ageing and independent living. However many older adults in Ireland who live independently are particularly at risk of malnutrition. Across the EU, 5-15% may be living with malnutrition, a situation which has led many countries, including Ireland, to sign the Prague Declaration 2009, committing to quantify and address the issue of malnutrition in Irish older adults. Malnutrition can contribute to frailty and can also impair important cognitive functions like memory. Cognition is critical not only for mental health, but also for physical health, and social and emotional wellbeing.

The RelAte Research team together with industry funders Home Instead: Karl Schutte, Managing Director of Home Instead Senior Care; Dr Joanna McHugh, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Institute of Neuroscience, Trinity; Ed Murphy, CEO of Home Instead; Yoshino Najakima, Chief Operating Officer, Home Instead; Jim Beck, Public Affairs Director, Home Instead; Dr Sabina Brennan, Assistant Director of the NEIL Programme; and Professor Brian Lawlor, Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical Director of the NEIL Programme.

Another risk for older adults is that of social isolation due to illness, frailty and bereavement. Loneliness and social isolation are as bad for and individual’s health as obesity and smoking[i] and are associated with increased risk of depression, sleep problems, poor quality of life, frailty and dying. The most recently published report by the Irish Longitudinal Study of Ageing shows that 6% of adults aged over 60 are at risk of social isolation, affecting men and women in equal parts.

NEIL’s research project ‘RelAte’ will actively tackle the twin issues of malnutrition and social isolation by tapping into the 1 in 5 older adults in Ireland who are active volunteers in their communities to deliver and evaluate a mealtime intervention to socially isolated older adults. The intervention places great emphasis on the social aspects of mealtimes and the volunteers will not only give the individuals taking part in the study nutritional advice, but will also spend time with them, planning and preparing the meals which they will eat together.

It is hoped that the 2-year research project will demonstrate the simple changes that can be made to bolster social and nutritional support for isolated older adults both of which have knock on effects for older people’s cognitive function, physical health and mental well-being and possibly their risk of mortality.

The researchers are looking to recruit two types of volunteers to take part in the study:

1.      50 volunteers, aged over 55, who may be interested in being trained as a NEIL volunteer who will engage with individuals in the community at risk for social isolation and deliver this mealtime intervention.

2.      100 socially isolated individuals over the age of 60 who are living alone at home.

Dr Sabina Brennan, Principal Investigator and Research Assistant Professor in Psychology at the School of Psychology, Trinity College Dublin, said: “Physical health, mental health, and engagement with life are the three core aspects of healthy ageing and independent living. We hope the two year RelAte study will show that social interaction and good nutrition can impact positively on quality of life, frailty and cognitive function. Failing cognitive function prevents millions of older adults from living independently in the community. The NEIL Programme is committed to conducting research and evaluating empirically grounded interventions aimed at enhancing cognitive function so that older adults can live independently for as long as possible.”

Commenting on the research, Professor Brian Lawlor, Conolly Norman Professor of Old Age Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin said: “We need to provide empirical evidence, through randomised controlled trials, that there are real and sustained benefits from relational and person-centred care interventions for older people. Proving that these types of interventions really work is crucial for their ongoing adaptation and sustainability’.”

He continued: “Provision of home-based support for our ageing population is an economic necessity of both national and international priority. At an individual level, home-based care provides individuals with the independence they require to maintain their health, activities, and sense of identity in their own home. The RelAte project has far-reaching implications for home-based support and for maintenance of independence into late life, both at a national and an international level.”

The project has received a €365,000 funding grant from Home Instead Senior Care Inc. Jim Beck, Director of Public Affairs at Home Instead Senior Care said, “As the leading home care company in Ireland and the globe we are delighted to be in a position to fund Trinity College Dublin to research this project.  It is our goal to ‘change the face of ageing’ and one way which we can do this is to support leading academic institutions such as Trinity College Dublin to research pertinent ageing issues.”


Media Coverage:



  • For information about the study, or if you are interested in participating, please contact project coordinator Dr Joanna McHugh at or call 01 896 8414
  • For media queries please contact Yolanda Kennedy, Press Officer for the Faculty of Health Sciences, Trinity College Dublin at or tel: +353 8963551




[i] House, Landis & Umberson, 1988