It’s easy to become isolated as you grow older. Friends and family members die or retire and move away. Impaired mobility can make it harder to get out of the house, especially if the weather is bad.
But there’s a difference between being isolated and feeling isolated. People with Alzheimer’s disease can find it hard to interact with others and with the world around them, especially as the disease progresses. But now researchers have discovered that the process may also work in reverse: People who simply feel lonely, whether or not they’re socially isolated, may have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
The research involved more than 800 people living in the Chicago area. At the beginning of the study they all had no symptoms of Alzheimer’s or any other kind of dementia. But they all answered questions about how lonely they felt. And some did rate higher on the study’s loneliness scale than others.
The study lasted about four years, and as it progressed the participants were examined every year. The researchers discovered that of the people who did develop Alzheimer’s symptoms, more than half had scored higher on the loneliness scale. To put it another way, the participants who had higher loneliness scores were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s.
There is still the question of which comes first. The researchers aren’t sure whether the loneliness brought on the Alzheimer’s or the Alzheimer’s caused the loneliness. But considering that the loneliness existed to some degree at the beginning of the study – before any other symptoms appeared – the researchers are leaning toward the first possibility. They think it’s possible that loneliness causes changes in the brain that affect thinking and memory.
Social isolation is certainly more likely as people get older. But it doesn’t have to be a natural consequence of aging. People who don’t get out much can still be socially active. They can get help in getting around, or their friends and family can come to visit them, instead of vice versa.
It may be harder to stay emotionally connected to the outside world. But this study points out how important that can be. The researchers believe that more study is necessary; the observation period needs to be longer, and the participant base more diverse (most of the people in this study were white). But the current results definitely indicate that finding a way to avoid loneliness, whether or not you’re physically isolated, can be important to physical health. It may even help seniors avoid the debilitating effects of a serious disease like Alzheimer’s.