A new Florida State University College of Medicine study involving data from 12,000 participants collected over 10 years confirms the heavy toll that loneliness can take on your health: It increases your risk of dementia by 40 percent. It was reported that the risk is across the board, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity or education, or whether you have regular social contact with friends and family.
The study was published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences. While the study was not the first of its kind to show that loneliness is associated with an increased risk of dementia, to date it is the largest sample yet, with a long follow-up, and a population that is more diverse.
The study took a longitudinal look at Americans 50 and older and their spouses. Participants reported on their loneliness and were also administered a cognitive battery every two years, up to 10 years after their reports of loneliness. During this time, 1,104 people developed dementia. Participants who reported greater feelings of loneliness were more likely to develop dementia over the next 10 years. Individuals who feel lonely are likely to have several risk factors for dementia, including diabetes, hypertension and depression, and are less likely to be physically active and more likely to smoke. Even after adjusting for those shared risks, loneliness still predicted dementia.
The lead author of the study, Angelina Sutin noted that the term “lonely” can have many interpretations, therefore the team’s study referred to “the subjective experience of social isolation,” which is separate from actual social isolation and should be noted as such. It is often described as a feeling that you do not fit in, or do not belong with the people around you, irrespective of people being physically around you, or not. For example, the author of the study notes that you can have somebody who lives alone, who doesn’t have very much contact with people, but has subjectively enough, and that fills their internal need/void for socializing. So even though objectively one might perceive that person is socially isolated, they don’t feel lonely. The other side of the coin is perhaps more common in today’s day and age — that one can be around a lot of people, and be socially engaged, and interactive, and still feel like they don’t belong or fit in for some imperceptible reason known only to them. From the outside in, it may look like you have great social engagement, but the subjective feeling is that you’re not part of the group, or perhaps any group at all.
Since people can be harsh to quickly judge, it is recommended against blaming the victim for feelings of loneliness. People might suggest going out and making new friends, but it’s not that easy, especially as one gets older. There are significant long-term consequences to having these kinds of feelings, and it may not be the individual’s fault or choice to be lonely.
There are a number of ways that loneliness may put one at risk for dementia. One way may be physiological, such as through higher inflammation in the body. This is the body’s natural response to infection, but it can be harmful when it is chronic and lasts a long time. A second way may be through behavior. People may cope with loneliness through behaviors that can damage the brain, such as heavy drinking or being sedentary or engaging in other unhealthy behaviors as a coping mechanism. A third way is through a lack of perceived meaningful social interaction. Keeping the mind engaged in a meaningful way can promote cognitive health that provides the motivation and structure to help maintain cognitive functioning, and consequently, a way for your social needs to be met while combating feeling of loneliness and isolation.
Perhaps this study serves as a reminder to us all that it may not be just about the number of friendships that we have acquired throughout life, but more importantly about the depth, and quality of those relationships that may count the most. This study also adds to the existing literature highlighting the importance of psychological factors, and how individuals subjectively interpret their own situation.
Angelina R Sutin et al. Loneliness and Risk of Dementia, The Journals of Gerontology: Series B (2018).