The social isolation caused by the coronavirus pandemic is at the core of the chronic loneliness of many older adults who have stayed home to avoid contracting COVID-19.
Similarly, people in long-term care facilities experience isolation and loneliness due to the lack of opportunities to engage with others outside of their environment.
A review of published observational studies by researchers in Spain looked at whether loneliness was linked to an increased risk of dementia. As reported in an April 2019 research article in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychology, researchers found that loneliness was linked to a 26% increased risk of dementia. One study also discovered that loneliness was linked to a 105% increased risk of mild cognitive impairment, a precursor to dementia.
While researchers acknowledged that the link between loneliness and the risk of dementia is not well understood, they were aware of the way loneliness affects this risk. For example, people who are lonely tend to engage in poor health practices such as eating habits and sedentary lifestyle, or even turn to smoking, drug or substance abuse.
Loneliness is also closely linked to depression, a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. And lonely people often pull back and shut themselves off from others because they miss the socialization and cognitive activity that are so important in reducing the risk of dementia.
It appears that while the underlying neural mechanisms in the brain are not fully understood, loneliness has been linked to the accumulation of beta-amyloid and tau proteins in the brain, two key brain changes that occur in Alzheimer’s disease. Theories suggest that loneliness and other psychological stressors chronically trigger the biological stress response, which in turn appears to increase beta-amyloid and tau accumulation in the brain.
Maintaining social activity can be key to protecting against a decline in intellectual ability and the negative effects of loneliness. Socialization helps people cope better with stress, and those who are feeling better and coping better with life’s troubles or are recovering from stressful events show less tau protein in their brain.
Reducing loneliness can promote overall brain health and is important to our overall wellbeing. Maintaining these connections with family and friends, participating in productive group activities like exercise, discussing fine arts, indoor gardening, or volunteering in community are all ways to reduce loneliness and the risk of dementia.
Exploring new activities like online groups or classes, learning a new hobby, or learning an instrument can provide ways in which lonely people can divert attention away from emotional, psychological, and / or environmental triggers, feelings of isolation and loneliness cause .
Questions about Alzheimer’s disease or related conditions can be directed to Dana Territo, the Memory Whisperer, owner of Dana Territo Consulting, LLC [email protected].