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Loneliness Linked to a Higher Risk of Dementia

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019

One in four Australian adults are lonely 1.  Loneliness is a feeling of distress we experience when our social relations are not the way we would like. It has been linked to poor mental health, and an increased risk for physical health conditions comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day 2.  Internationally, loneliness is fast emerging as a significant public health issue – so much so that the UK appointed a minister for loneliness in January of this year 3.

Researchers in Spain recently asked whether the detrimental effects of loneliness also extended to an increased risk of dementia. They conducted a rigorous search of all the studies that had ever been published on this topic until the end of 2018; and found eight articles spanning Asia, the US and Europe with a collective total of 33,555 participants.  The team then performed a statistical procedure called a meta-analysis, to combine and summarise the results from these studies.  A review of this kind is considered the highest quality source of evidence.

The authors found that loneliness was associated with a 26% increased risk of dementia, give or take a few percent adjusting for other factors such as depression. The review included studies that were conducted in community-dwelling samples from both Eastern and Western countries, and thus the findings might be generalisable across regions and to the general population.

The authors propose several ways loneliness might influence dementia.  There may be a genetic or neurological link between the two.  Moreover, lonely individuals might be more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviours that affect cognition, such as a poor diet, lack of exercise or substance use. We also cannot definitively conclude that loneliness causes dementia – it could be the reverse. Loneliness could be a manifestation of cognitive deterioration or an early sign of changes in the brain associated with dementia.  Then again, loneliness has also been linked to an early death.  Lonely individuals in the included studies might have passed away before a diagnosis of dementia was made, and in this way the review may be underestimating the risk of dementia.

Furthering our understanding of the relationship between loneliness and dementia is important in assisting the design of interventions to enhance community participation and maintenance of social relationships, not only to promote brain health but for our wellbeing overall.

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The University of Sydney

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