Lonely Heart Club's Dementia Risk

Loneliness linked to higher dementia risk

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Many seniors live alone in their golden years, but this doesn't mean they're lonely. But feeling lonely may affect how long they are able to live alone before developing dementia.

A recent study looked at the risk of dementia in a group of seniors over age 65. Some lived alone, some felt lonely and some were not currently married.

All of these factors were linked to their risk of dementia, but loneliness had the highest risk. Those who felt lonely were twice as likely to develop dementia within the next three years.

"Stay socially active as you age."

The study, led by Tjalling Jan Holwerda, from the Department of Psychiatry at ARKIN Mental Health Care in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, aimed to find out whether feeling lonely contributed to a person's risk for dementia or Alzheimer's disease. The researchers followed 2,173 seniors for three years who were living in a community and did not show any symptoms of dementia at the start of the study.

During interviews and tests at the start of the study, researchers assessed the participants' cognitive functioning and asked them about feelings of loneliness and about their interaction with others.

Social isolation was defined in the study as living alone, not being married (or no longer married) or not having other social support, such as from friends, family or neighbors. This question was different from the ones asking whether the participants felt lonely.

The researchers also gathered data on the participants' socioeconomic background, education level and other medical conditions at the start of the study.

They also noted whether the individuals had depression or anxiety and whether they smoked or misused alcohol.

When the study began, 46 percent of the participants were living alone, 51 percent of them were not married or no longer married and 73 percent of them were not receiving social support.

About one-fifth of the participants (20 percent) reported feeling lonely when the study started.

After three years, 9.3 percent of the seniors living alone had developed dementia compared to 5.6 percent of those living with others.

Similarly, 9.2 percent of those not currently married developed dementia compared to 5.3 percent of those who were currently married.

However, the rates flipped when it came to those individuals getting support from a social network. Only 5.6 percent of those without social support developed dementia compared to 11.4 percent of those who were receiving support from friends, family and/or neighbors.

Those who reported feeling lonely at the start of the study were more than twice as likely to have dementia three years later. While 5.7 percent of those who did not report loneliness developed dementia, 13.4 percent of those who did feel lonely developed dementia.

However, the researchers did not find any links among feeling lonely, living alone, not being married or not receiving social support.

In other words, those who lived alone or weren't currently married were not necessarily the ones who felt lonely and vice versa. There were also no differences in the results between males and females.

"Interestingly, the fact that 'feeling lonely' rather than 'being alone' was associated with dementia onset suggests that it is not the objective situation, but, rather, the perceived absence of social attachments that increases the risk of cognitive decline," the researchers wrote.

Separately, the researchers did find higher risks of developing dementia among those who were older, had a lower level of education, were depressed or had a respiratory disease or a stroke.

The study was published December 10 in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry. The research was funded by grants from The Netherlands Health Research Promotion Programme and The Netherlands Foundation of Mental Health. The researchers declared no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
December 10, 2012
Last Updated:
December 11, 2012