Avoiding loneliness reduces dementia risk by 40%, new research finds.
The study helps underline the striking effect of loneliness on health.
People can still feel lonely despite regular contact with friends, family and colleagues, research shows.
Loneliness can be a feeling of not fitting in with those around you — despite having a lot of social contact.
Dr Angelina Sutin, who led the study, said:
“We are not the first people to show that loneliness is associated with increased risk of dementia.
But this is by far the largest sample yet, with a long follow-up.
And the population was more diverse.”
The study followed 12,000 Americans over 50-years-old for up to 10 years.
All reported on their levels of loneliness and took cognitive tests.
During the study, 1,104 people developed dementia.
The results revealed that those who reported the highest levels of loneliness were more likely to develop dementia.
Dr Sutin explained that loneliness is different from social isolation:
“It’s a feeling that you do not fit in or do not belong with the people around you.
You can have somebody who lives alone, who doesn’t have very much contact with people, but has enough—and that fills their internal need for socializing.
So even though objectively you might think that person is socially isolated, they don’t feel lonely.
The flip side is that you can be around a lot of people and be socially engaged and interactive and still feel like you don’t belong.
From the outside it looks like you have great social engagement, but the subjective feeling is that you’re not part of the group.”
Loneliness may be linked to dementia through a number of paths:
- Meaningful social contact may help to keep the brain engaged and healthy.
- Lonely people may experience more inflammation in their bodies.
- Loneliness may lead to unhealthy behaviours like drinking.
Escaping loneliness is not easy, but it is at least amenable to change, Dr Sutin said:
“Loneliness is a modifiable risk factor.
Most people might describe periods where they felt lonely and then periods where they didn’t feel lonely.
So just because you feel lonely now, you don’t always have to feel this way.”
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The study was published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences (Sutin et al., 2018).