Loneliness, Not Living Alone, Linked to Dementia

Yes, there is a difference. Why one is more likely to trigger serious memory problems.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Pasotraspaso. Jesus Solana / Getty Images

Yes, there is a difference. Why one is more likely to trigger serious memory problems?

In a study published in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, Tjalling Jan Holwerda of the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam found that participants who reported feeling lonely — regardless of how many friends and family surrounded them — were more likely to experience dementia than those who lived on their own. The scientists focused on nearly 2,200 older adults living in Amsterdam, ages 65 to 86, who did not show signs of dementia and were not living in institutions like nursing homes, and visited them twice over three years. About half of the participants lived alone and 20% reported feelings of loneliness. Almost two-thirds of the elderly in the study were women.

Prior research suggested that having a supportive social network is linked with positive health outcomes, from psychological health to physical health, while lacking such support can be harmful. Indeed, a growing body of studies find that loneliness itself can kill, typically by raising blood pressure and increasing risk for heart disease and stroke. High blood pressure is also a risk factor for dementia.

(MORE: The Reason You’re in Love With Material Possessions? Loneliness)

The Dutch study found that after adjusting for other relevant factors like age, feeling lonely raised the risk of dementia by 64%. The research didn’t distinguish between Alzheimer’s, which accounts for 90% of dementia, and other types of the mind and memory-robbing illness. But the authors caution that the results cannot prove loneliness causes dementia: in fact, the opposite could be true since dementia and its resulting changes in mood and brain function may contribute to some of the social withdrawal of loneliness.

“[L]oneliness may be a behavioral reaction to diminished cognition,” the authors write in discussing their findings, because people who are losing their memories may withdraw from others, either due to embarrassment or confusion about how to handle social situations resulting from their brain impairment.

(MORE: Feeling Alone Together: How Loneliness Spreads)

There is also the possibility that “loneliness may also lead to a lack of sensory and cognitive stimulation,” which can be harmful because it reduces levels of nerve growth factors that are necessary for brain health. Both processes could also be occurring at the same time, leading to a vicious cycle in which dementia lowers social support, which then worsens the disorder.

The results add to evidence of the complicated relationship between perception and social engaging, suggesting that a person’s perception of his situation, like whether he feels lonely or not, may have a greater impact on health than objective measures such as whether he lives alone and is isolated from a social network. Many people say they feel lonelier in a bad marriage than they do being single — and people can certainly live alone but still have a large network of friends and family. Research on stress similarly shows the importance of this perception of social connectedness: if you feel you have control over the stress in your life —regardless of whether you actually do — it can have less negative physiological and psychological impact on your health in terms of blood pressure and heart disease.

Of course, controlling whether you feel lonely or not can be difficult — and becoming anxious that being lonely will worsen or cause dementia won’t help, either. But the research increasingly suggests that if you do feel socially isolated, working to improve your social network may be an important first step toward improving your health.

2 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
bobintexas2
bobintexas2

Well duh, who doesn't already know this??  I have read countless articles and studies of the hazards and side effets of loneliness.  This is not new.  But NOBODY does anything about it.  People get locked in to the "loneliness thing" and cannot get out.  If you live in a town like I do where EVERBODY is married and the only social event is High School Football, you are stuck.  It will affect you r business, your health, and adds a super large helping of MISERY that I cannot even describe.  I have eaten my meals alone for DECADES.  I never even go see a movie becasue I have nobody to go with.  Never take a vacation becasue of the same reason.  At 61 it ain't gonna change either.

thewholetruth
thewholetruth like.author.displayName 1 Like

Excellent article. The reason for the loneliness  effect has been shown in brain scans. Loneliness causes the brain to retard in many areas including memory. This was shown in Europe. There is much that can help the brain recover from this. The brain loves activity and this is crucial for development at any age. In addition researcher is 5 countries have shown that diet can restore much that was lost from dementia  I believe the research is not finished yet  

See here in England's UK News  

 http://www.thisisplymouth.co.uk/Dementia-Diet-Doctors-say-way-stop-growing-crisis/story-17203870-detail/story.html