Loneliness and Dementia
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- Loneliness and Dementia
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Loneliness and Dementia
The confusion and forgetfulness of dementia can leave individuals feeling lost and alone. However recent studies have suggested that older people who say that they feel lonely may actually be more likely to develop dementia from Alzheimer’s and other causes.
Researchers in the Netherlands followed seniors unaffected by Alzheimer’s for three years. They discovered that people who reported feeling lonely were significantly more likely to develop dementia. This increase was unrelated to depression, socio-economic status or general health.
The link seemed to relate to the individual’s subjective feeling of loneliness rather than the actual lack of a partner or social network. Interestingly people who were reclusive but didn’t feel lonely were not at any increased risk.
Similar findings were also discovered in the American Health and Retirement study, where individuals who reported feeling the most isolated and alone were twenty percent more likely to suffer mental decline.
So why should this be?
More research is needed before we can say for sure whether the loneliness is a cause or a very early effect of the disease, or a combination of the two factors.
There is a theory that the feeling of loneliness may alter the connections between brain cells, affecting the brain’s ability to protect itself against the attack of Alzheimer’s. This can be compounded by the fear, confusion and communication difficulties of dementia, which can increase social isolation.
Another possibility could be the fact that interacting with family or friends makes the brain more efficient. Scientists in Chicago studied the brain of a 90-year-old woman who died from Alzheimer’s but maintained excellent mental function. It appeared that her rich social network helped her brain develop a "cognitive reserve” which allowed it to function as if she did not have dementia.
Alzheimer’s is likely to be caused by a number of factors: Genes, age, diabetes, blood pressure and diet may all have a role in determining who suffers cognitive decline and who stays mentally sharp. However this evidence shows that by avoiding loneliness and encouraging interaction we may be able to go some way to help both prevent dementia and slow the progress of the disease. As Dr Clare Walton, research manager at the Alzheimer’s Society said:
"To fend off loneliness and social isolation, it is crucial that we all play a part in supporting the most vulnerable people in our society to feel part of the community.”
References and Further Research
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