Loneliness and Its Connection to Alzheimer's

Last updated: March 2022

Loneliness and social isolation are serious health risks for older people. Both can increase the chances of developing Alzheimer's disease (AD), dementia, heart disease, depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure. They can even lead to death.1,2

Although they may seem like the same thing, loneliness and social isolation are different. Loneliness is when someone feels upset because they are alone. This feeling can happen even if other people are around. Social isolation happens when someone does not have other people around them. They might live alone or have few friends.2

A 2020 report found that about 1 in 4 people 65 and older in the United States are socially isolated. Many adults in the United States say they feel lonely. Social isolation was linked with about a 50 percent increased risk of dementia. More studies are needed to understand how loneliness affects health.3

Loneliness matters

Feelings of loneliness can play a role in developing dementia and AD. One study found people who said they were often lonely had a higher chance of getting all-cause dementia. The link between loneliness and AD was stronger than for other causes of dementia.2

The study followed 1,905 people without dementia for up to 20 years. The average time the people were followed was 11 years. They were asked, "Do you often feel lonely?" They could answer yes or no. Over the time of the study, 428 people developed all-cause dementia, broken down as:2

  • 221 with AD
  • 157 with vascular dementia
  • 50 with other kinds of dementia

The researchers noted that everyone needs to pay close attention to elderly people who talk about loneliness. Also, more potential strategies to help people feel less lonely are needed.2

Another study looked at results from 11 long-term studies to see if loneliness is a cause or result of dementia. The researchers found that the studies were hard to compare because 4 different tools were used to measure loneliness and dementia. The significant extra risk of dementia among lonely people ranged from 15 percent to 64 percent. So the researchers could not answer whether loneliness causes dementia or the other way around.4

Power of connection

Meaningful relationships are important to overall happiness. Good social connections help people live longer, healthier lives.

Remember, there are no 1-size-fits-all cures for loneliness and social isolation. Strategies to lessen loneliness or the onset of loneliness are not always effective for everyone.4-6

Strategies for combatting loneliness

Ask your doctor to check on you or your loved one for loneliness. The doctor will ask questions about isolation and loneliness, especially for people who are often alone.1,3

Get suggestions from your doctor about community resources you and your loved ones can use.3

Reach out to friends and family. Encourage friendships to help them engage with neighbors, peers, and volunteers.5,6

Start a new hobby or join a group activity for fun. Activities that have been shown to decrease loneliness include:5

  • Gardening (indoor, outdoor, alone or in community)
  • Walking
  • Swimming
  • Tai chi

Sign up for a therapy group to reduce negative feelings. You can meet with people to talk about your life (reminiscence therapy) or tell jokes and laugh (humor therapy). Look for other activities or meetings where you can connect with others on a personal level.5

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