A 2012 study done by the Amsterdam Study of the Elderly produced findings that suggest a link between feelings of loneliness and an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease. However, this study also highlighted that there is a distinct difference between feeling lonely and actually being alone. For example, social isolation such as living alone did not have any impact, but the perceived feeling of loneliness was associated with a 64% increase in the risk of dementia. The participants for this particular study were 2,000 men and women at age 65 or older. 46% of these participants were living alone and 50% were either single or no longer married. Only 20% of participants said they felt lonely. These statistics demonstrate that the feeling of loneliness is independent from the actual state of being alone.
The researchers of this study also questioned whether or not the feelings of loneliness were a cause of dementia or a result. They formed one hypothesis that suggested that the feelings of loneliness might actually be a “manifestation of the deteriorating social skills that are seen as part of the personality change accompanying the process of dementia.” They also mentioned that the perceived loneliness may be related to an extra sensitivity to distress. Distress has been proven to be a risk factor for the disease. More research will need to be done to determine whether loneliness is a risk factor or an early symptom of Alzheimer’s disease.
One thing we do know is that exercise, eating a healthy diet consisting of a lot of fruits and vegetables, and not smoking have been proven to be successful ways to reduce the risk of dementia or prevent future declines. It is also important to stay mentally alert, which can be done through activities such as reading or crossword puzzles. Staying socially involved has also been associated with a brightened mood and less of a risk for dementia.
Although being alone and feeling alone are independent variables, feeling connected to others can decrease one’s perceived loneliness. Attending an adult day program at a local senior center is one way of forming friendships and creating a sense of purpose, which ultimately leads to a more positive mood and a decreased risk for dementia. Becoming more involved in religious groups or community service is another way to make connections and have a more positive lifestyle. Assisted Living Facilities are another great way to enter a more social environment for those who no longer wish to live alone.