March 9, 2022
Feeling lonely may increase your risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, according to a new report. The study, from researchers at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine and other medical centers, found that older adults who reported feeling lonely have triple the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia than their less lonely peers.
The findings underscore the importance of social connection and stimulation in helping to keep the brain in good working form as we grow older. The findings are especially important in these difficult and socially isolating times, as the pandemic heads into its third year.
“This study emphasizes the importance of loneliness and issues of social connection in addressing our risk of developing dementia as we age,” said the study’s lead investigator, Dr. Joel Salinas, a professor of neurology at NYU. “Acknowledging signs of loneliness in yourself and others, building and maintaining supportive relationships, providing much-needed support for the people in our lives who are feeling lonely — these are important for everyone. But they’re especially important as we age to increase the chances that we’ll delay or perhaps even prevent cognitive decline.”
For the study, researchers reviewed the medical records of 2,308 men and women who were part of the large and ongoing Framingham Study, which has tracked Americans over decades. At the start of the study, their average age was 73, and none had Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.
All underwent psychological assessments and had MRI brain scans to look for signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Among the study participants, 144 said they felt lonely for at least three days during the preceding week.
Over the next 10 years, 329 of the study participants had been diagnosed with dementia, including 31 who were in the lonely group. The researchers found that those in their 60s or 70s who had reported feeling lonely were up to three times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia than their more socially connected peers.
Loneliness was also tied to a diminished ability to make decisions, to plan, to be flexible in your thinking and to pay attention, all skills that may signal an increased likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease down the road. In addition, feelings of loneliness were tied to lower brain volume and changes to the brain’s white matter tied to increased Alzheimer’s risk. Loneliness after age 80, however, was not tied to an increased dementia risk.
“This study is a reminder that, if we want to prioritize brain health, we can’t ignore the role of psychosocial factors like loneliness and the social environments we live in day-to-day,” said Dr. Salinas. “Sometimes, the best way to take care of ourselves and the people we love is simply to regularly reach out and check in — to acknowledge and be acknowledged.” The findings were published in the journal Neurology.
The study also offers important lessons for those caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. Caregiving can be a stressful and lonely experience. Relationships with others can suffer as the day-to-day demands of caretaking become increasingly consuming. Maintaining social ties and having others you can confide in can help to bring stress levels down and, as this and other studies show, can be good for the brain.
Scientists are unsure why or how loneliness may be linked to dementia. Some speculate that social interaction may help to keep the brain stimulated and help to build connections between brain cells. It is possible that the brains of lonely people may be less able to compensate for the onslaughts of a disease like Alzheimer’s.
Many factors determine who will ultimately develop Alzheimer’s. Feeling lonely is only one of many factors that may increase the risk. Experts say that nobody should blame themselves for feeling lonely; they suggest a number of measures that may help to foster social connections and curb feelings of loneliness. Among them:
- Local Y’s and groups like AARP offer group fitness classes geared to older people that can help to forge friendships. Physical activity helps to diminish stress and is also good for the brain.
- Community centers often offer courses in painting, crafts, writing, music, dance, gardening, cooking and other activities. Many are tailored to caregivers who often have few chances to connect with others and reap the benefit of mutual support.
- Join a book club or schedule a monthly potluck supper gathering.
- The internet and social media offer ways to connect. Groups like Meetup.com can be a way to connect with others who have similar interests or life experiences. But experts also warn that social media, with its emphasis on depictions of others having a good time, can also make people who are feeling lonely or isolated feel even worse.
- Reach out to a neighbor to ask how they are doing and if there’s anything you can assist with. Make a phone call to a friend – today! Chances are, you will both end up feeling better.
By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.
Source: Joel Salinas, Alexa S. Beiser, Jasmeet K. Samra, et al: “Association of Loneliness With 10-Year Dementia Risk and Early Markers of Vulnerability for Neurocognitive Decline.” Neurology, Feb. 7, 2022