'Feeling lonely is dangerous for your brain health, according to a new study presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference this week. Lonely older adults are not only more likely to experience declines in mobility and physical limitations; they are also more likely to have memory problems and are at higher risk for dementia, says Nancy Donovan, geriatric psychiatrist with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Donovan and her colleagues studied 8,300 men and women 65 and older and found that those who reported feeling the loneliest had a 20 percent faster decline in mental ability than those who said they weren’t lonely. Depression also accelerated the decline. Interestingly, problems with memory did not predict loneliness, which implies that being lonely may be causing memory problems but memory problems don’t necessarily cause loneliness.
Donovan called loneliness “a form of suffering that is untreated.” Previous studies have found that loneliness increases the risk for early death by 45 percent, and a 2012 Dutch study found that loneliness increased the risk of developing dementia by 65 percent.
But does loneliness cause physical changes that hurt the brain or could it be that lonely people don’t take care of themselves or have anyone to care for them? Researchers aren’t sure, but they suspect that loneliness has physiological effects, Donovan says. She speculates that the psychosocial stress of loneliness may cause inflammation that is harmful to the brain. It’s also possible that people in the earliest phase of dementia are avoiding friends and family because they are confused, uncomfortable or embarrassed.
“In some studies, social withdrawal is actually the earliest behavioral sign of change in people who will go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease,” Donovan says. “So the question is: Why is that? Is it a frustration or an avoidance? We don’t know, but that’s what I’m very interested in looking at.” She adds that some older adults have trouble understanding the intentions and thoughts of other people and that may contribute to the problem as well.'