Research: Social Isolation May Be Factor in Developing Alzheimer's Disease

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Remember that song, “Only the Lonely”? Well, it turns out that loneliness and lack of in-person social interaction may increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

    Recent research published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry reported that seniors who remained “housebound” may double their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, according to While other factors may explain this association, the findings also provide food for thought on the toll that isolation may take on the brain.

    These researchers found that study participants (all of whom were seniors) who never left their home during a given week were approximately twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease five years later when compared with study participants who went out of town. In addition, those who didn’t leave their driveway or front yard were more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment.  “People who don't leave their home as much aren't engaging with their environment and meeting new people. They may not be using their minds as much,” said Dr. Bryan D. James, who was the lead researcher and is a postdoctoral fellow at Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago.

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    I found this study interesting and somewhat scary based on an article entitled “Just Ask the Lonely” by Brad Edmondson from the November/December 2010 issue of AARP: The Magazine.  Edmondson reported that millions of older Americans are suffering from chronic loneliness. Additionally, 35% of the 3,012 study participants who were age 45 and older were chronically lonely. A person with chronic loneliness “pushes people away from the relationships that sustain us and make us happy,” Edmonson wrote, adding that chronic loneliness often begins when a person experiences a painful rejection or loss. The person then becomes defensive in order to avoid connecting with people and, thus, avoid being hurt again.

    Alzheimer’s isn’t the only potential hazard of being chronically lonely. This condition significantly increases a person’s risk of diabetes, sleep disorders, high blood pressure, higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and weakened immune systems.

    And unfortunately, it’s really easy these days to become isolated and lonely. Edmondson reported that the number of single-person households has increased dramatically over a 24-year period. In 1985, 20.6 million people lived alone; however, by 2009, 31.7 million were living in single-person households. In addition, 70% of these households were made up of a person who was 45-years-old or above. Furthermore, the percentage of people who are in their 50s who described themselves as lonely has just about doubled in the past decade while there’s a 50% increase in people in their 60s who said they were lonely.

    So what ways can one avoid isolation and chronic loneliness and, instead, embrace quality social interactions? Here are some ideas:

    • Step away from the computer. In our technological world, it’s easy to do everything via email and instant messaging (and Facebook, for some). Instead, try to actually see someone face-to-face, whether through a meal or – as I did over the weekend – participating in a happy hour, going to a dog park, or hiking with a friend.
    • Form a common interest group that meets periodically. That could mean a book group, a foodie group, or a knitting circle.
    • Go to community education classes that are focused on a particular interest of yours, whether it’s jewelry-making or woodworking.
    • Take an exercise class at the gym.
    • Volunteer.

    Being socially engaged can be more difficult as we age, but interacting with people face-to-face can help not only make you happier, but also protect your brain. It’s well worth the effort!

Published On: May 31, 2011