Elderly person

Thought-provoking new research suggests lonely individuals may be twice as likely to develop the type of dementia linked to Alzheimer’s disease (AD) as those who are not lonely.

The effect of emotional isolation (the feeling of being alone) with an increased risk for AD is an expansion of prior research that demonstrated social isolation, or having few interactions with others, can increase the risk of dementia and cognitive decline.

The study by researchers at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center is published in the February issue of Archives of General Psychiatry.

Robert S. Wilson, PhD, and his colleagues, analyzed the association between loneliness and Alzheimer’s disease in 823 older adults over a four year period. Participants underwent evaluations that included questionnaires to assess loneliness, classifications of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and testing of their thinking, learning and memory abilities.

According to Wilson, loneliness is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, not an early sign of the disease. Autopsies were performed on 90 individuals who died during the study.

Loneliness during life was not related to any of the hallmark brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease, including nerve plaques and tangles, or tissue damaged by lack of blood flow.

“Humans are very social creatures. We need healthy interactions with others to maintain our health,” said Wilson. “The results of our study suggest that people who are persistently lonely may be more vulnerable to the deleterious effects of age-related neuropathology.”

The mechanism that does link dementia and loneliness is unclear. Wilson encourages more study to look at how negative emotions cause changes in the brain.

“If loneliness is causing changes in the brain, it is quite possible that medications or changes in behavior could lessen the effects of these negative emotions and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” said Wilson.

Source: Rush University Medical Center