Loneliness, Social Isolation and Alzheimer's

Patient Expert

A recent study indicates that Mom's feeling of emotional isolation may have been another risk factor in her developing Alzheimer's disease. The research, conducted by the Rush University Medical Center Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago, tied feelings of being socially isolated and disconnected from others with a doubling in the chance of developing the type of dementia linked to Alzheimer's disease late in life.

This was a study that looked at the effect of feeling alone, rather than being alone or socially isolated, which other studies have explored. It was published in the February 2007 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry, was featured by many major news outlets across the United States.

The most important risk factors for Alzheimer's disease are older age, high blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and a family history of the disease. In addition, many studies have reported that women have a much higher risk for Alzheimer's disease than men.

I happened to hear about the loneliness study in an e-mail newsletter from CBS News, which included an interview with Dr. David Bennett, the study's co-author and the director of Rush's Alzheimer's Disease Center.

"It turns out people who have this feeling of being socially isolated are at higher risk of developing Alzheimer's," Dr. Bennett said. "We are talking about a tendency to feel isolated and alone in the world. You can have a small network and not feel isolated; or you can have a large network but don't know how to connect, and feel isolated."

Bennett's description fits Mom's situation. Prior to retirement, Mom had used all of her energy to focus on work, and most of her friends were associated with the stores that my parents owned. Those friends tended to drift out of Mom's life after my parents retired and moved to Austin. However because of Mom's lung disease, my parents decided to move back to West Texas to see if the drier air would help her breathing. My mother didn't re-establish her network of friends, instead seeing only a few people. Slowly those people dropped out of her world, for various reasons.

As this occurred, I remember thinking that Mom was getting herself pretty isolated. For her birthday one year, I sent Mom a gift card to a restaurant and expressly told her that this gift card was so she could take some of her friends to lunch. Each time I asked her about whether she had arranged this lunch, Mom would say that her friends were too busy with work or their family to spend time with her.

By this time, Mom also was having short-term memory loss, so perhaps she felt ashamed of her situation. I can remember calling one of Mom's friends (without Mom's knowledge), explaining my concerns about Mom's increasing isolation, and encouraging this lady to call Mom. I think this call did happen, but Mom never got back into any type of social interaction with this friend or her other friends.

Increasingly, Mom isolated herself in her room. She wouldn't talk to my father; instead, they started to have more fights, which just increased Mom's isolation. And Mom would shorten the phone conversations with my brother and me. Before, Mom and I would talk and scheme for an hour each week; as she became isolated, our conversations dwindled to where they were less than five minutes each week.

The lesson learned from this study is that we need to find ways to help loved ones build a sense of community. Ideas for this include encouraging loved ones to become engaged through the local senior citizen's center or through community education classes. If a loved one is in the early stages of Alzheimer's, you might want to take them to an adult day care in your area on a regular basis. Finding non-threatening ways for your loved one to stay connected to other people may prove to have more significant consequences in relationship to Alzheimer's disease.