News & Commentary

Loneliness Linked To Dementia

When Elvis crooned “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” little did he know that about six decades later researchers would be asking people a variation of that question and carefully measuring the responses.

That’s what researchers at Florida State University did, finding that loneliness increases a person’s risk of developing dementia by 40%. Their study, a data analysis of 12,030 participants over 10 years, was published October 26 in the Journals of Gerontology. Participants were patients aged 50 and older and their spouses who were part of the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study. Over the decade, 1,104 participants developed dementia.

The researchers looked at the usual suspects: a variety of clinical, behavioral, and genetic risk factors; the presence of certain relatively common diseases (diabetes, hypertension, depression); and some behaviors (smoking, alcohol consumption). But University of Michigan researchers also collected data about loneliness.

Angelina Sutin, the study’s principle investigator and an associate professor at Florida State University, noted in a news release that this is not the first study to show a connection between loneliness and dementia, but it is by far the largest with the longest follow up. There are a number of ways loneliness can put someone at risk for dementia. For instance, it may cause higher inflammation, causing the body to not respond to infection in a timely way.

Then there are the behavioral problems, such as heavy drinking, being sedentary, or lacking social interaction that can keep the mind engaged.

Don’t blame the victim, said Sutin. “People might say, ‘You’re lonely. Go make a friend.’ But it’s not that easy.”

Also, there’s hope in that feelings of loneliness can ebb; it is a modifiable risk factor. “Most people might describe periods where they felt lonely and then periods where they didn’t feel lonely.”