So many of you have expressed concerns about the emotional toll associated with your social isolation and resulting loneliness and similar challenges for others you love during this nearly three years of pandemic. You and I too have undoubtedly felt the impact from the many, many days of staying home, donning masks and, oddly, living with that childhood warning about “stranger danger.” Today it’s more like “Don’t talk to strangers – at least unless they are staying at least six feet away or masked!”
New scientific evidence is underscoring the extraordinary impact that loneliness can have on us humans: it can actually increase the 10-year risk of developing dementia, even for those without the APOE4 genetic marker for possible dementia.
Imagine that: lonely older adults have a higher 10-year dementia risk when they are compared with those who are not lonely!
Loneliness has also been associated with poorer executive function among people without dementia, which means that they had diminished abilities in their basic cognitive processes, researchers reveal.
Apparently our bodies treat “loneliness” as a state of threat and the response is to activate the body’s defensive systems, like the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn prompts the immune system to enhance inflammation. That’s at least one pathway by which social isolation can accelerate the progression of Alzheimer’s disease as well as other inflammation-related chronic diseases. We also know that inflammation also alters brain function and social motivation.
We aren’t cutting-edge researchers but we can certainly take this important information to heart, especially when we have older friends and/or relatives whose lives or current situation is leading to loneliness. The mood disorder of depression, often accompanying loneliness for many living in isolation, adds an additional risk factor for dementia.
Nonetheless, you and I can do something about it. We can take active steps: reach out to lonely loved ones, send a text, make a visit, show interest in them, help them make new friends and find more inviting social and physical situations to engage in.
Who knows? Maybe some of you will even get motivated to volunteer a couple of hours a week to read to or spend time with a lonely senior: not only may they and their family be grateful for your attention, but they are likely to also remain sharper as well as happier for your caring.