Subtle feelings of loneliness might warn of impending Alzheimer’s disease in older folks, a new study suggests.
Healthy seniors with elevated brain levels of amyloid — a type of protein fragment associated with Alzheimer’s disease — seem more likely to feel lonely than people with lower levels of amyloid, researchers found.
“For people who have high levels of amyloid — the people truly at high risk for Alzheimer’s — they were 7.5 times more likely to be lonely than non-lonely,” said lead researcher Dr. Nancy Donovan. She’s director of the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Studies have long shown that people who remain socially active are less likely to develop dementia, Donovan said.
But the results of the new study suggest that that relationship may work the other way around, as well — that people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s might be more apt to feel lonely, or socially detached.
“People who are starting to accumulate amyloid may not be as well-functioning in terms of perceiving, understanding or responding to social stimuli or interactions,” Donovan said. “This could be an early social signal of mental change.”
If this is proven, then doctors might be able to screen for Alzheimer’s by paying closer attention to patients’ emotional health, she suggested.
To examine the relationship between late-life loneliness and Alzheimer’s risk, Donovan and her colleagues examined 43 women and 36 men, average age 76. All were healthy, with no signs of Alzheimer’s or dementia. The investigators particularly focused on amyloid levels in the cerebral cortex, a part of the brain that plays a key role in memory, attention, perception and thought. People with high levels of amyloid in the cortex were 7.5 times more likely to be classified as feeling lonely, even after researchers accounted for how socially active they were and whether they suffered from depression or anxiety.
By taking into account the extent of the person’s social network, Donovan’s team showed that seniors who feel isolated or socially detached even when surrounded by friends or family could be at elevated risk for Alzheimer’s.
However, the study doesn’t prove a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the two.
If this is substantiated by other larger studies, then a logical question would be, what kind of intervention would result? If you can impact on this loneliness by creating interventions where people were taken out of their loneliness and engaged in social events, would there be less likelihood of dementia?