As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us, social isolation can have a variety of negative impacts on our lives. We should be able to resume our normal social lives once the pandemic is in check, which should help us shed some of those negative impacts. However, for the chronically lonely, those effects can build up and cause some serious health issues.
Researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine looked at the impact of midlife loneliness on dementia risk. They found that people who frequently experienced loneliness between the ages of 45 and 64 had a higher chance of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s later in life. However, on a happier note, people who recovered from their loneliness had a lower risk compared to people who had never felt lonely. The findings were published in late March in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.
Dr. Wendy Qiu, the study’s co-author and professor of psychiatry and pharmacology & experimental therapeutics, says, “Whereas persistent loneliness is a threat to brain health, psychological resilience following adverse life experiences may explain why transient loneliness is protective in the context of dementia onset.”
The study authors went on to say that with regard to the pandemic, this may be good news for people who have been lonely but can ease those feelings away as regular socialization becomes safe again.
To test the link between midlife loneliness and Alzheimer’s, the research team studied cognitively normal adults who had taken part in the Framingham Heart Study. They investigated whether persistent loneliness had a bigger impact on future Alzheimer’s risk than transient loneliness. In addition, they wanted to see if this risk was independent from depression and genetic factors linked with the development of the disease.
The researchers say that they took the effects of age, sex, education, social network, living alone, physical health and genetic risk into account. With that in mind, they found that after 18 years, persistent loneliness was linked to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s, while transient loneliness was associated with a lower risk compared with no loneliness.
Researchers say these findings could be a springboard into studying why people can be so resilient in the face of tough life events. It should also encourage well-timed interventions among those who are persistently lonely.
The study adds onto other research about the health risks associated with loneliness. People who are past middle age are especially at risk of its health impacts.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, “Loneliness and social isolation in older adults are serious public health risks affecting a significant number of people in the United States and putting them at risk for dementia and other serious medical conditions.”
The CDC notes that some of the possible health outcomes of persistent loneliness are an increased risk of premature death, dementia, heart disease, stroke, depression, anxiety, suicide, and worsening heart failure.