Most of us have had some concerns about the emotional toll associated with our own social isolation and resulting loneliness during this pandemic. You and I have undoubtedly felt some impact from the many, many days of staying home, donning masks and, oddly, returning on some level to childhood warnings when we were told about “stranger danger.” Don’t talk to strangers – at least unless they are staying at least six feet away!
Now scientific evidence is underscoring the extraordinary impact that this loneliness can have on us humans: it increases the 10-year risk of developing dementia for individuals, even for those without the APOE4 genetic status, the marker for possible dementia.
It has now been documented scientifically that lonely older adults have a higher 10-year dementia risk when they are compared with those who aren’t 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 published in Neurology.
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 could accelerate the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and other inflammation-related chronic diseases. We also know that inflammation alters brain function and social motivation, raising the possibility that early Alzheimer’s-related biological processes themselves might actually further promote loneliness and social isolation.
One “take-away” is that when your loved ones are being assessed for dementia, a basic loneliness screening might well be added to other inquiries.
You and I aren’t cutting-edge researchers but we can certainly take this important information about loneliness to heart, especially when we have older friends and relatives whose lives or situations are leading them towards loneliness. We can take some active steps to reach out to them, send a text, make a visit, show interest in them, help them make new friends and find more inviting social situations to engage in. Who knows? Maybe some of you will get motivated to volunteer a couple of hours a week to read to or spend time with some lonely seniors: they may not only be grateful for your attention, but they are likely to also be sharper.