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Early Stage Symptom: Social Withdrawal

In the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s disease, individuals may experience a range of symptoms that at first might seem like regular signs of aging. As the disease progresses, the symptoms become more and more pronounced. One of these symptoms that tends to become more prominent as the disease progresses is social withdrawal. This can occur for a variety of reasons.

Those at risk of Alzheimer’s disease, as well as those with the disease, should try to stay socially engaged. Social engagement has shown to be associated with reduced risk of disability and mortality, and can help reduce the risk of depression and potentially even delay the onset of dementia.1,2 Maintaining social connections is good for overall health, especially if an individual is dealing with a chronic or progressive disease.

When to talk with your doctor

Social withdrawal might occur for a variety of reasons during Alzheimer’s disease. In the beginning, after the diagnosis, an individual might withdraw from friends and social groups because of anger at the diagnosis or the need to process the news. As the disease progresses, patients might find that their language difficulties, confusion, or memory loss make it hard to be in groups of people or maintain conversations with other people. As the cognitive impairment gets worse, individuals might lose the language needed to talk with other people about how they’re feeling, further isolating them.3

If you’ve recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and notice yourself pulling back from interacting with friends and social events, talk with your doctor. If this is ongoing, you might want to speak with a professional counselor. Depression is common in Alzheimer’s disease, especially in the early and middle stages.3 This should be addressed like any other symptom because this can amplify other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and impact your overall health and well-being as well.

Treatment

If an individual’s social withdrawal is due to depression, there are treatments. There is medication, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac and Zoloft are often used in people with Alzheimer’s disease because they have a lower risk of medication interactions.3 It is important to see a neurologist or a geriatric psychiatrist because some antidepressants can make cognitive symptoms worse and these specialists are well-informed about the best drugs for older individuals. There are also many non-drug treatments for depression, including support groups, counseling/talk therapy, and regular physical exercise.

If the social withdrawal is because of other reasons, like memory or language difficulties, individuals are encouraged to find a way to stay engaged socially that is right for them. This can include joining a support group, book club, or knitting group (or a group that focuses on another hobby you enjoy). Volunteer or become an advocate for a cause, or make it a point to have lunch or dinner with a friend on a regular basis. If patients are too wary of doing activities alone, include a partner or caregiver.

Staying connected with others can help reduce the risk of adverse health effects and provide patients with a support system. While they may have to adapt their social events or the number of social engagements, maintaining connections and staying active will help both mentally and physically, and might even assist in reducing symptoms. Talk with the doctor about local resources that might be of interest, or look online for both local groups and online groups to stay connected with others.

Written by: Jaime Rochelle Herndon | Last reviewed: June 2019
  1. Alzheimer’s Association. Stay Mentally and Socially Active. 2019. https://www.alz.org/help-support/brain_health/stay_mentally_and_socially_active Accessed April 16, 2019.
  2. Hsiao YH, Chang C-H, Gean P-W. Impact of social relationships on Alzheimer’s memory impairment: Mechanistic studies. J Biomed Sci. 2018; 25(3). Doi: 10.1186/s12929-018-0404-x Accessed April 16, 2019.
  3. Alzheimer’s Association. Depression. 2019. https://www.alz.org/help-support/caregiving/stages-behaviors/depression Accessed April 16, 2019.