During last year’s lockdowns due to the coronavirus panic, loneliness became a bigger problem than ever. Especially among older adults.
And that’s a real concern—because loneliness harms mental health and longevity. Plus, it may even significantly impact brain health.
In fact, according to a brand-new study, loneliness increases your risk of developing this devastating brain disease by a staggering 91 percent.
Roy Orbison’s song Only the lonely rings true
A new study from Boston University (BU) looked at the connection between loneliness and dementia risk. (Dementia is the general term used to describe age-related cognitive decline.)
To start, the BU researchers zeroed in on nearly 3,000 men and women, ages 45 to 64 years, who participated in the famed Framingham Heart Study. This ongoing analysis of heart disease risk launched in 1948, and it continues to serve as a huge treasure trove of health information for researchers.
For this new analysis of Framingham data, the participants answered one set of questions about their feelings of loneliness between 1995 and 1998…and again between 1998 and 2001.
Then, the researchers sorted the participants into four categories, according to their answers:
- Those who did not experience any loneliness during either exam.
- Those who experienced “persistent” loneliness (feeling lonely at both exams).
- Those who experienced “transient” loneliness (feeling lonely at only the first exam).
- Those who experienced “incidental” loneliness (feeling lonely at only the second exam).
It turns out, about 8 percent of the participants developed dementia during roughly 20 years of follow-up. Of that 8 percent, 80 of them were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), specifically.
And—the participants who felt “persistently” lonely had nearly a 91 percent higher risk of developing dementia or AD than those who did not report ever feeling lonely. So, perhaps, as Roy Orbison sang in his first major hit song from 1960, “only the lonely know this feeling ain’t right.”
Now, here’s where things got really interesting…
Does resilience promote brain health?
People who felt “transiently” lonely actually had a 66 percent lower risk of developing dementia compared to those who didn’t report ever feeling lonely!
To which you may wonder, how can that be?
Well, the researchers said this encouraging finding relates to how middle-aged people respond to feelings of loneliness. Do they take steps to pull out of their loneliness? Or— does the loneliness take over and become a persistent problem that eventually almost doubles dementia and AD risk?
In my view, these findings suggest that people who CAN pull out of their loneliness must develop some kind of psychological resilience, which allows them to better ward off harmful, age-related brain changes later in life.
The key factors may relate to mental stimulation and engagement with the surrounding world. Indeed, other studies show that many mental activities that exercise the brain markedly reduce the risk of dementia. And on the flip side, when the brain isn’t used, it can atrophy or “shrink.”
Granted—as sociologist David Reisman noted in his famous book, The Lonely Crowd—isolation and loneliness do not necessarily go together. For example, people can reside alone, yet not feel lonely. And on the flip side, you can be surrounded by crowds and still feel very alone.
Of course, dementia isn’t the only chronic disease linked to loneliness. As I’ve reported before, research also links loneliness to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and even an increased mortality risk.
Start moving past two years of forced isolation
Given the social isolation forced upon all of us over the past nearly two years, many of us could use a nudge in finding new ways to reconnect with others. So, here are five ways to help you reconnect with others and combat loneliness:
1.) Have regular conversations (in person, by video, or by phone) with friends, family members, and even strangers.
2.) Engage in some hands-on, mind-body approaches, like acupuncture, bodywork, massage, meditation and yoga. These natural approaches help to improve mood and ease anxiety. Plus, they get you connected with like-minded, healthy people. You may find you make a new friend! You can learn about which non-drug treatments will work best for you or a loved one by taking this simple quiz or by reading my books, Your Emotional Type and Overcoming Acute and Chronic Pain: Keys to Healing Based on Your Emotional Type.
3.) Try some new, creative pursuits—such as taking a cooking class, joining (or starting) a book club, or volunteering with a local charity. Again, taking part in these kinds of activities will connect you with like-minded people who want to fill their days with healthy pursuits.
4.) Get out in Nature. Study after study shows that the great outdoors has mental, emotional, and physical health benefits. Including cutting down on feelings of loneliness. I suggest getting out for a swim with a buddy at your local watering hole.
5.) Consider adopting a pet. As I reported in the July 2019 issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter, caring for a pet does wonders for your mental and physical health (“New research reveals why adopting a pet may be just what the doctor ordered”). Not yet a subscriber? All it takes is one click!
I also urge you to check out my Complete Alzheimer’s Fighting Protocol. This innovative learning tool contains dozens of drug-free, cutting-edge strategies to help safeguard your brain against dementia and AD. To learn more about this comprehensive protocol, or to enroll today, click here now.
“Associations of loneliness with risk of Alzheimer’s disease dementia in the Framingham Heart Study.” Alzheimer’s Dement. 2021; 1- 9. doi.org/10.1002/alz.12327