In a new study, researchers found that being persistently lonely during midlife (ages 45-64) appears to make people more likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) later in life.
However, people who recover from loneliness, appear to be less likely to suffer from dementia, compared to people who have never felt lonely.
The research was conducted by a team from Boston University.
Loneliness is a subjective feeling resulting from a perceived discrepancy between desired and actual social relationships.
Although loneliness does not itself have the status of clinical disease, it is associated with a range of negative health outcomes, including sleep disturbances, depressive symptoms, cognitive impairment, and stroke.
Still, feeling lonely may happen to anyone at some point in life, especially under extreme and unresolved quickly circumstances such as the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Yet, people differ in how long—or how “persistent”—they feel lonely.
Thus, it may be that people who recover from loneliness will experience different long-term consequences for their health than people who are lonely for many years.
In the study, the team examined data involving cognitively normal adults from the Framingham Heart Study.
Specifically, they tested whether persistent loneliness more strongly predicted the future development of dementia and AD than transient loneliness.
They also wanted to see whether this link was independent of depression and established genetic risk factors for AD, such as the Apolipoprotein ε4 (APOE ε4) allele.
The team found persistent loneliness was linked to higher risk, whereas transient loneliness was linked to lower risk of dementia and AD onset after 18 years, compared with no loneliness.
They say whereas persistent loneliness is a threat to brain health, psychological resilience following adverse life experiences may explain why transient loneliness is protective in the context of dementia onset.
In light of the current pandemic, these findings raise hope for people who may suffer from loneliness now but could overcome this feeling after some time, such as by using successful coping techniques or following a policy change in the physical distancing regulations.
One researcher of the study is Wendy Qiu, MD, Ph.D.
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