Loneliness Increases the Risk of Poor Health and Premature Death
In a survey of 20,000 US adults, 46% said they sometimes or always feel alone.
While on the surface this may seem to be a mental health issue, it is one that’s intricately tied to physical health. Increasingly, research is showing that loneliness exacts a significant toll on one’s health, 1 that increases the risk of premature death.
Your brain health may also suffer as a result of feeling lonely, with a recent study showing loneliness is associated with increased risk of dementia. While this association has been revealed previously, the latest study is unique in that it included a diverse sample of more than 12,000 individuals with a long 10-year follow-up time.
The results showed that feeling lonely is a strong predictor of dementia, and one modifiable risk factor that can potentially be improved to reduce dementia risk.
For the study, researchers from Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee used data from a sample of people aged 50 and older. Telephone interviews had been conducted measuring loneliness and social isolation and participants had also conducted assessments of cognitive ability every two years during the 10-year study.
Loneliness was associated with a 40% increased risk of dementia over the study period, and the link was independent of other risk factors including gender, education, race, ethnicity and even social isolation. Social isolation is an important distinction, as it is an objective measure that refers to the number of contacts a person has socially.
A person can have a large quantity of social contacts yet still feel lonely, or have a low number of social contacts and feel fulfilled, so social isolation is not always the best measure of how a person is feeling internally.
This is where loneliness comes in, as it refers to the subjective experience of social isolation.
Only people who felt lonely had an increased dementia risk. They were also more likely to have other dementia risk factors, including depression, high blood pressure, diabetes and a history of smoking and less physical activity. However, the loneliness/dementia link remained even when these factors were accounted for.
Study author Angelina Sutin, an associate professor at FSU in the college’s department of behavioral sciences and social medicine, explained the difference between loneliness and social isolation, and how it is not always readily apparent who’s lonely and who is not:
“It’s a feeling that you do not fit in or do not belong with the people around you … You can have somebody who lives alone, who doesn’t have very much contact with people, but has enough, and that fills their internal need for socializing. So even though objectively you might think that person is socially isolated, they do not feel lonely.
The flip side is that you can be around a lot of people and be socially engaged and interactive and still feel like you don’t belong. From the outside it looks like you have great social engagement, but the subjective feeling is that you’re not part of the group.”
In Y 2007, research published in the Archives of General Psychiatry also revealed that people who felt lonely had double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease compared to those who did not.
Study author Robert S. Wilson, PhD, explained in a news release: “Humans are very social creatures. We need healthy interactions with others to maintain our health … The results of our study suggest that people who are persistently lonely may be more vulnerable to the deleterious effects of age-related neuropathology …If loneliness is causing changes in the brain, it is quite possible that … changes in behavior could lessen the effects of these negative emotions and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.”
And, yet another study looking into the link between loneliness and dementia revealed that feeling lonely, but not necessarily being alone, is associated with an increased risk of dementia in later life.
The association was so strong that researchers concluded feelings of loneliness may be a prodromal stage of dementia and noted, “A better understanding of the background of feeling lonely may help us to identify vulnerable persons and develop interventions to improve outcome in older persons at risk of dementia.”
Loneliness may affect dementia risk in multiple ways, including by increasing inflammation in the body along with blood pressure, both of which may affect dementia risk.
Feeling lonely may also encourage you to engage in unhealthy behaviors linked to dementia, including excessive drinking or not exercising. Further, if you’re lonely, you may not be engaging in social activities or challenging your mind, which can further affect your cognitive function.
While social isolation hasn’t been linked to dementia the way loneliness has in the featured study, strong social networks are still an important factor for your overall health. Further, different types of social networks, such as those involving friends, children or other relatives, may have different effects on your health.
In one study, it was revealed that having a large network of good friends may have significant benefits for your memory later in life, much more so than social networks with children, relatives or confidants. The researchers suggested that friends may encourage healthy behaviors, such as physical activity, and that health advice from friends may be better received than that coming from family.
Strong friendships may be beneficial for other factors that influence brain health, including depression, self-efficacy, self-esteem, coping and morale and a sense of personal control.
“It is possible that these effects are due to the reinforcement of social roles, or because interactions with friends can become increasingly discretionary with age. The friendship networks that are retained in late life may offer high levels of socioemotional support, and thus confer benefit to individuals,” the researchers explained.
As for why social networks benefit memory, specifically, the researchers noted: “Social networks are the basis for social engagement, which is cognitively stimulating and may enhance neural plasticity in aging, thereby maintaining cognitive reserve. Thus better social networks might lead to continued psychological stimulation, delaying cognitive decline, or impairment.
An alternative possible mechanism is that the stronger social networks may serve to buffer against stress, through modifying its effects on the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis of the central nervous system.
This affects neuronal functioning, and in this way individuals with better social networks are protected from some of these neuroendocrine processes. Another possibility is that social networks facilitate access to healthcare, indirectly forestalling brain pathology and other disease processes that affect cognition.”
A few simple tricks, get good sleep, cook and eat Real food, exercise regularly, get out in the Sun, stay in touch with friends, and smile!
Eat healthy, Be Healthy, Live lively