The link between loneliness and dementia is well-established at this point, but a new study shows that the link is much stronger than we would have liked: those who deal with loneliness are 40 percent more likely to develop with dementia.
In a study involving more than 12,000 Americans, a much larger sample size than previous studies, researchers found that loneliness increased a person’s risk for developing dementia by 40 percent even when controlling for other risk factors.
But it’s not a simple A to B relationship. Dementia can increase a person’s risk of loneliness just as loneliness can increase risk of dementia, creating a negative feedback loop that can be hard to recognize and harder to break.
The new study was published in October of 2018 in The Journals of Gerontology, but it began 10 years before when 12,030 participants ages 50 and above, submitted information on their levels of loneliness and social isolation as well as clinical, behavioral, and genetic risk factors. The cognitive status of the participants was assessed at the beginning of the study and then every two years over a 10-year period.
The study found that loneliness was associated with a 40 percent increase in risk of dementia even when controlling for external and genetic risk factors. The association held true across sex, ethnicity, and education level.
Loneliness is a modifiable risk factor, but it’s often incorrectly defined, and common well-intentioned recommendations for fixing loneliness (join a bookclub, call a friend, etc.) are often ineffective and may be harmful. Researchers want to know more about why loneliness affects our health, and how we can prevent the vicious cycle of loneliness contributing to mental and physical illness, and then those illnesses exacerbating loneliness.
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Why Loneliness Hurts Our Health
A study led by Robert S. Wilson, PhD, found that loneliness was linked to the type of dementia linked with Alzheimer’s disease, but loneliness did not cause the physical brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s, such as nerve plaques and tangles. Wilson suggested that people who are chronically lonely may be more vulnerable to the effects of age-related neuropathy.
Another theory is that humans have a primal need to be part of a group. Early in our history, humans needed to band together in order to survive, and being alone would hurt our changes of survival. Loneliness puts our bodies in survival mode, which causes stress. Our physical bodies may experience loneliness in the same way we would experience actual physical danger. Stress wears on our bodies, causing damage over time.
There are practical considerations as well. Lonely people may have a smaller social network to rely on when they are ill, get inadequate physical and mental stimulation to maintain cognitive health, and be less likely to seek treatment. Loneliness may cause behavioral changes that can contribute to dementia, such as coping by drinking heavily or neglecting physical activity. If someone begins to experience dementia, confusion or embarrassment may cause them to withdraw from others and cut themselves off from the connection they need.
And we often add to the problem of loneliness by misunderstanding its causes and offering solutions that don’t actually address the issue.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness isn’t a physical state, it’s a mental one. Loneliness is a perceived lack of social support, which means that someone is lonely when they feel lonely, whether they’re at home or in a crowd. People who are lonely have a more negative view of social interactions and may perceive others as a threat. Spending significant time alone is not the same as feeling lonely, and one or two close friends may be enough to establish a feeling of connectedness.
Loneliness can feed on itself since lonely people may feel threatened by social interactions and seek to avoid them, and they tend to misinterpret the well-intentioned actions of others. Because of this self-defeating mindset, loneliness quickly becomes a self-sustaining cycle that is difficult to break. Health status, personality traits, and lack of social resources may contribute to and exacerbate someone’s sense of loneliness.
In the recent study, 1,104 people out of 12,030 developed dementia over the 10 years that researchers were collecting information. Angelina Sutin, the lead investigator of the study, noted that the feeling of loneliness is subjective and is separate from actual social isolation. “It’s a feeling that you do not fit in or do not belong with the people around you,” Sutin said. Even someone who appears to have plenty of social interaction can feel lonely if they don’t feel that they don’t belong.
But, Sutin says, loneliness is a modifiable risk factor. It’s just hard to modify.
There is no easy plan for fixing loneliness. It’s a daily process. Someone who is lonely is at a higher risk for depression, and it’s important that if you are experiencing depression, or think you might be, you seek out help and someone to talk to. The first step in combatting loneliness or depression is admitting that you are struggling.
If you are experiencing loneliness, try to reach out for help even if it feels uncomfortable. Try changing the negative narratives in your head by assuming that people have good intentions and want the best for you, even when it doesn’t seem true. You should also step away from things that increase feelings of loneliness, like looking at pictures on social media.
If someone you know is struggling with loneliness, prioritize visiting them and checking in with them, and encourage other friends and family to do the same.
It’s important that we all work to take care of ourselves and others around us. Loneliness touches up to 60 percent of older Americans, and prevalence seems to be growing in all demographics. Many people feel lonely, and though it’s difficult, we have to keep trying to connect meaningfully with those around us and celebrate what connects us rather than what keeps us apart.
Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.