The social isolation brought on by the coronavirus pandemic is the core of chronic loneliness for many older adults, who have been staying home to avoid contracting COVID-19.
Similarly, those in long-term care settings have been experiencing isolation and loneliness because of the lack of opportunity for engagement with others outside their environments.
A review of published observational studies by researchers in Spain examined whether loneliness is associated with an increased risk of dementia. As reported in an April 2019 research article in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychology, the researchers found that loneliness was associated with a 26% increased risk of dementia. It was also discovered in one study that loneliness was associated with a 105% increased risk of mild cognitive impairment, a precursor to dementia.
While it was acknowledged by researchers that the relationship between loneliness and the risk of dementia is not well understood, they were aware of ways that loneliness influenced that risk. For example, individuals who are lonely are inclined to engage in poor health practices like dietary choices and lack of exercise, or even turn to smoking, substance or drug abuse.
Also, loneliness is closely linked to depression, a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. And lonely individuals often withdraw and cut themselves off from others, missing that socialization and cognitive activity that is so vital in reducing the risk of dementia.
It seems that though the underlying neural mechanisms in the brain are not fully understood, loneliness is linked to the buildup of beta-amyloid and tau proteins in the brain, two key brain changes that occur in Alzheimer’s. Theories suggest that loneliness and other psychological stressors act to chronically trigger the biological stress response, which in turn appears to increase the beta-amyloid and tau accumulation in the brain.
Maintaining social activity may be the key to protecting against a decline in intellectual abilities and the negative impacts of loneliness. Socialization helps individuals cope better with stress and those who feel better and are more able to cope with life’s difficulties or bounce back from stressful events show less build-up of tau protein in their brains.
Reducing loneliness can promote overall brain health and is important for our overall well-being. Keeping those connections with family and friends, involvement in productive group activities, such as exercise, visual art discussions, indoor gardening or volunteering in the community are all ways to reduce loneliness and the risk of dementia.
Exploring new activities such as online groups or classes, acquiring a new hobby or learning how to play an instrument can offer ways in which someone who is lonely can refocus attention away from emotional, psychological and/or environmental triggers that cause feelings of isolation and aloneness.