Loneliness associated with increased risk of dementia in older adults, study finds

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New research found that loneliness increased the risk of dementia in older adults, tripling in those whose baseline risk would otherwise be relatively low.

The study, published in the journal Neurology, and led by researchers at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine, emphasized the impact that loneliness and issues of social connection have on our risk of developing dementia as we age, according to Joel Salinas, MD, MBA, the study’s lead investigator.

Researchers used retrospective data of the population-based Framingham Study over the course of a decade and reviewed 2,308 participants who were dementia-free at baseline. The average age of the study’s participants was 73 years old.

Using neuropsychological measures and MRI scans of the brain, participants were asked how often they felt lonely along with other depressive symptoms, such as restless sleep or poor appetite. In addition, researchers looked for the presence of a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease called the APOE ε4 allele. Overall, 144 of the 2,308 participants reported feeling lonely three or more days a week. Of the 2,308 participants, 329 of them received a dementia diagnosis, according to the study.

The results found no significant association between loneliness and dementia in participants aged 80 years or older. However, younger participants in the 60 to 79 age group who were lonely were more than twice as likely to develop dementia. Loneliness was associated with three-fold increased risk among the younger age group who did not carry the APOE ε4 allele.

This tripling in risk could be related to associations between loneliness and early cognitive and neuroanatomical markers of vulnerability to Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, according to researchers. The study also showed that loneliness was related with poorer executive function, lower total cerebral volume, and greater white-matter injury, which are indicators of cognitive decline.

“This study is a reminder that, if we want to prioritize brain health, we can’t ignore the role of psychosocial factors like loneliness and the social environments we live in day-to-day,” said Salinas, assistant professor of Neurology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and member of the Center for Cognitive Neurology in the Department of Neurology in a statement. “Sometimes, the best way to take care of ourselves and the people we love is simply to regularly reach out and check in—to acknowledge and be acknowledged.”

Integrative practitioners can be on the lookout for signs of loneliness in their older patients and help strategize ideas for decreasing isolation and fostering more connection to help prevent cognitive decline.