The link between dementia and loneliness has been generally known, but not necessarily its extent. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, multiple researchers and organizations have performed studies examining the link between loneliness, social isolation, and dementia more closely.
Each study looked at a different angle of the dementia-loneliness-social isolation triangle, but they reached similar conclusions: social isolation can fuel loneliness and dementia. However, there are ways for people to decrease their feelings of social isolation. That’s what we, as a society, should be focusing on.
COVID’s Impact on People with Dementia
Approximately 850,000 people in the UK live with dementia, according to the country’s Alzheimer’s Society, 120,000 of whom live alone. When COVID hit, social isolation increased across the globe, along with fear, anxiety, quarantines, and restrictions. The population that suffers from dementia was hit particularly hard, as they are already at risk for social isolation and depression. COVID further isolated them by cutting them off from caregivers, family, and other sources of emotional and physical support.
NIHR: One-Third of People with Dementia Experience Loneliness
A recent survey conducted by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) found that one-third of people with mild-to-moderate dementia experience a sense of loneliness, with 5% experiencing severe loneliness.
Additionally, people with dementia who live alone, are isolated, or depressed are likely to feel more lonely. These findings are comparable to those of the general population of elderly people.
While the survey shows that many who suffer from dementia are also lonely, it could not establish whether depression and lower quality of life in people were causes or consequences of loneliness.
Regardless of cause or consequence, the NIHR reinforced that loneliness isn’t “just” a feeling, but a severe emotion that has been linked to declining well-being, heart disease, depression, cognitive decline, and even death. The report concluded that society must devise interventions and support methods to help those with dementia combat these feelings.
Neurology: Social Isolation Can Increase Risk of Dementia by 26%
According to research published in Neurology, social isolation is linked to lower brain volume in areas related to cognition. In fact, social isolation can increase the risk of dementia by as much as 26%.
Whereas the survey conducted by the NIHR was inconclusive — it could not determine whether depression and lower quality of life in people with dementia were causes or consequences of loneliness — the Neurology study says something else. It says that loneliness can actually increase the risk factors for dementia.
PLOS ONE: Association Between Social Isolation and Dementia Risk Factors
A new study published in PLOS ONE looks at a similar issue but from a different angle. The study found that social lifestyle factors, including social isolation, are associated with increased risks for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD).
The researchers surveyed about 30,000 people in the Canadian Longitudinal Study of Aging (CLSA) and looked at data from an additional 500,000. They found that people who smoked and drank excessively, didn’t exercise regularly, and didn’t sleep well — risk factors for ADRD — were also found to have an increased risk for loneliness and lack of social support.
For example, in the CLSA, researchers found that those who increased physical exercise in a social setting saw a 20.1% decrease in odds of feeling loneliness and a 26.9% decrease in feeling like they have low social support.
The positive aspect of these results is that these risk factors for increased loneliness are largely controllable, unlike genetics and other medical illnesses. In other words, if people could improve their lifestyle habits, diet, exercise, and sleep, they can potentially reduce the risk of loneliness and isolation, both risk factors for ADRD.
Multiple Studies, One Conclusion
While these studies examined the same coin from different angles, the conclusions are similar: public officials, organizations, and society at large must provide support for the loneliness and social isolation that plagues the growing population suffering from dementia.
According to PLOS ONE, ADRD is a “growing public health crisis” and costs more than $1 trillion globally. Offering support and seeking solutions are in everyone’s best interest: those who suffer from ADRD, the families of those who suffer, caregivers, and medical establishments.
While there will always be factors we can’t control, these studies show that there are factors that we can control — and focusing on these factors can greatly improve the quality of life of people suffering from dementia.