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Dementia risk increased by feeling lonely

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Keith David Barnard
demential screening at 75 proposed

11th December 2012 - People who feel lonely have an increased risk of dementia in later life, according to a study. However, researchers in the Netherlands say this should not be confused with being socially isolated - such as older people who live alone, without a partner and lacking a social life.

A number of factors are known to be linked to the development of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. These include being old, having underlying medical conditions such as vascular disease, impaired thinking skills and depression.

However the authors, writing in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, say little work has been undertaken into whether loneliness and social isolation may also contribute to the onset of dementia.

They say the issue is likely to become more important as the population ages and more people spend longer living on their own.

Study of dementia and depression in the elderly

To test the theory, the researchers tracked the long-term health and wellbeing of 2,173 individuals who had been enrolled in the Amsterdam Study of the Elderly which had been set up to examine what conditions lead to dementia, depression and a higher than expected death rate among older people.

All those taking part had no signs of dementia and were monitored for three years.

At the start of the study:

  • 46% were living alone
  • Around 75% said they had no social support
  • Around 20% said they felt lonely

At the end of the three year period their physical and mental health was assessed and were asked how they coped at home and whether they felt lonely.

Finally they were given a test for signs of dementia.

Twice the risk of dementia

Analysis showed that more than twice as many of the volunteers who reported feeling lonely had developed dementia after three years compared with those who did not feel that way - 13.4% compared with 5.7%.

When other influential factors were taken into account, those who said they were lonely were still 64% more likely to develop the disease, while other aspects of social isolation had no impact.

The authors, led by Tjalling Jan Holwerda of Amsterdam's Free University Medical Centre, write: "These results suggest that feelings of loneliness independently contribute to the risk of dementia in later life."

They continue: "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."

Contributory factor or symptom?

The authors speculate that loneliness could either be a sign of emerging dementia or contribute to its onset by affecting thinking skills and memory.

Commenting on the study, Jessica Smith, a research officer at the Alzheimer's Society, says feeling lonely could have close links to dementia. However, she continues in an emailed statement : "More research is needed to determine whether it is a risk factor or in fact an early symptom.

"There is strong evidence to suggest that the best way to reduce your risk of dementia is by regularly exercising, eating a diet rich in fruit and vegetables and not smoking."

Reviewed on December 11, 2012

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