If the global pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that social isolation is detrimental to mental health.
What’s more, it’s been particularly rough for older people, who may not be as technologically savvy with online platforms that can bridge the gap.
Sadly, the repercussions of loneliness can have far reaching health impacts, including a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
A new study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) reveals that loneliness and social isolation can literally steal your memory.
The study’s authors characterize the health impacts of loneliness as “substantial” and point to a dramatic increase in the incidence of dementia and even death as a result of social isolation.
“…Social isolation or loneliness in older adults is associated with a 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia,” the authors write. “A 30 percent increased risk of incident coronary artery disease or stroke, and a 26 percent increased risk of all-cause mortality.”
Another study, published by the journal Alzheimer’s and Dementia, reveals equally sobering news.1
Increased Risk for Loneliness Starts in Middle Age
Based on data from the Framingham Heart Study, researchers found adults who experience loneliness during middle age are more likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s disease later in life.2
Researchers reported “persistently lonely” people between ages 45 and 64 had a 91 percent higher risk for dementia. Additionally, this group had a 76 percent higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease compared to people who didn’t feel lonely.
Even more alarming, more than one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are categorized as socially isolated.
It’s really no surprise that the older you get the more likely you are to experience loneliness or social isolation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Older adults are at an increased risk of loneliness and social isolation because they are more likely to face factors such as living alone, the loss of family or friends, chronic illness, and hearing loss.3”
Preventing Loneliness and Isolation is Critical
The authors of the study published in the journal Alzheimer’s and Dementia write that we can help limit the risk of cognitive decline by finding ways to prevent loneliness and social isolation, starting in middle age.
“We think that persistent loneliness reflects a person’s coping skills and life stressors, such as financial situations, medical conditions [and] family change, which middle-aged people often face,” said study co-author, Dr. Wendy Qiu.
Dr. Qui said that in addition to social isolation, lack of exercise and intellectual stimulation can all increase one’s risk of any kind of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
“As a society, we can do things to intervene in loneliness, like providing counseling and reaching out to those who are facing life stressors or grieving,” she said.
The Best Ways to Prevent Isolation
Wondering what you can do to help a friend or loved one? According to experts, reaching out through social media may not be the answer.
Instead, pick up the phone and give your friend a call.
A new paper published in JAMA Psychiatry shows that a program of phone calls focused on empathetic conversation can help stem the tide of loneliness and isolation. The conversations were short, only lasting about ten minutes each. The conversations included a variety of subjects that were interesting to both the recipient of the phone call and the volunteer caller.4
Over the course of four weeks, the experiment resulted in an overall reduction in symptoms of loneliness, depression and anxiety in at-risk adults aged 27 to 101.
And while the program was conducted during the coronavirus pandemic, the findings may be universal.
Dr. Maninder Kahlon, lead author of the study, hopes the study serves as a model for an ongoing program to fight social isolation in people of all ages.
If health care systems and public health agencies start building a workforce of empathetic callers, it could do more than alleviate loneliness, Kahlon suggests.
And if you, yourself, are feeling lonely and isolated it’s vital to address the issue.
Take stock in the connections you already have. It’s easy to get tunnel vision and forget the caring folks who are in our world. Also, recognize that you are not alone in your loneliness, as more than 60 percent of Americans report feeling lonely.5
Some say that simple acts of kindness can help. For example, holding the door for a stranger or just offering a smile can help ease loneliness for both of you.
If possible, try to have a face-to-face conversation (or at least a phone call!) with someone daily. That person can be a friend, a neighbor, the UPS driver or even the grocery store clerk. Also, volunteering can be a great way to build your social network and feel good about what you’re doing, too.
Most important, know that if loneliness becomes unbearable, help is there.
If you or someone you know is struggling or having thoughts of suicide, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK), use the online Lifeline Chat or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.