Beat loneliness and you could beat Alzheimer’s, too

At any age, loneliness kills.

Not being alone, mind you, but that feeling of isolation and disconnection from others.

Infants who are neglected do not thrive. People with no social contacts often become depressed, some even suicidal.

Humans are social creatures. Not surprising, then, that people who feel isolated from others get sick more often.

Ongoing loneliness is a very real risk factor for chronic health conditions such as heart disease and stroke.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy says that loneliness creates a biological response that leads to chronic inflammation, the precursor to diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and so many other problems.

And loneliness affects the brain.

Lonely people produce more of the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn can impair cognitive function.

Several large studies have recently shown that being lonely does more than just slow our thinking down. It sets us up for a high risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Social isolation builds amyloid plaque

Just this year, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital have made a clear connection between the lack of social engagement and Alzheimer’s risk in older people.

Dr. Nancy Donovan and her team sampled 217 men and women who were enrolled in the Harvard Aging Brain Study, which looked for early brain changes that could signal the risk of Alzheimer’s.

The participants had no symptoms of the disease yet, but some had high levels of amyloid-β protein in their brains, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s.

After assessing both social engagement and cognitive performance at the start, and then three years later, it was clear that cognitive decline in those adults with both elevated amyloid-β and high social isolation was much quicker than for those who were more socially engaged.

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Loneliness is a factor, too

Researchers at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago took a slightly different angle and looked specifically at the feeling of loneliness we discussed earlier, and how it might increase Alzheimer’s risk.

Over four years, 823 adults were evaluated using loneliness scales, cognitive testing, and assessment for signs of Alzheimer’s.

During the study, 76 people developed Alzheimer’s, and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s increased by about 51 percent for each point on the loneliness scale.

More links between loneliness and Alzheimer’s

The findings of the Rush study were not an isolated case, either. At least two large-scale studies have also connected loneliness with Alzheimer’s risk.

About a year ago, a Florida State University College of Medicine study gave us some startling results: unrelenting loneliness can increase your risk of dementia by 40 percent.

The study involved data collected from 12,000 participants over a period of ten years. Data came from the Health and Retirement Study and was collected every two years. Of the 12,000 participants, 1104 had developed dementia by the end of ten years.

And finally, a study from the Netherlands followed 2,173 seniors, none of whom had dementia or Alzheimer’s at the start.

Essentially, those who were alone, but did not feel lonely, showed no increased dementia risk, while those who experienced a feeling of social isolation, even while living with others, were more likely to develop dementia.

“It is not the objective situation, but rather the perceived absence of social connections, that increases the risk of cognitive decline,” the authors wrote.

In other words, if you feel lonely, you’re more susceptible to developing Alzheimer’s.

An easier fix than most

“Loneliness is a modifiable risk factor,” said Angelina Sutin, the principal investigator in the Florida State study.

In other words, if you can change your feeling of loneliness, you automatically lower your Alzheimer’s risk.

So, how do you start doing that?

Here are some thoughts on how to combat loneliness.

Recognize the signs. There’s a difference between “alone” and “lonely.” If you spend a lot of your time alone and develop physical symptoms that you can’t explain any other way (stomach aches, headaches, sleeping more), you should probably look at how you can connect with others more.

Do what you enjoy, and look for others who enjoy it, too. Simple things like gardening, reading, or playing music. There’s a lot to be said for joining a book club. Just being around others who appreciate what you do will stave off that feeling of isolation.

Say “yes” when your mind says “no.” Being lonely can feed on itself. When you receive an invitation to go to a play or to dinner, your mind might default to “no, thanks.” Make it a point to say yes anyway.

Spend more time with the people already in your life. Pick just one person you may not have seen or spoken to in a while and reach out to them with a phone call. Don’t think about what will happen next… just connect.

Don’t compare yourself to others. Appearances can be deceiving.  The person who is surrounded by friends and so “popular” may be feeling just as lonely as you are on the inside.

Mainly, breaking out of loneliness means taking small risks every day that will pay off in better health, and a longer, more vibrant life.


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Sources:

  1. Study connects low social engagement to amyloid levels and cognitive decline — Neuroscience News
  2. Loneliness and Alzheimer’s — Rush University Medical Center
  3. What Happens in Your Body When You’re Lonely? — Cleveland Clinic
  4. Young Americans are the loneliest, surprising study from Cigna shows — USA Today
  5. Massive study confirms that loneliness increases risk of dementia — Medical Xpress
  6. Feeling Lonely Increases Alzheimer’s Risk — Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation

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Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.