(NaturalNews) Studies have linked factors such as living alone or a lack of social connections to an increased risk of dementia. But according to a study published in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, it is actually feelings of loneliness, rather than any of these objective external factors, that are associated with greater risk.
"These results suggest that feelings of loneliness independently contribute to the risk of dementia in later life," the researchers wrote.
Well-established risk factors for dementia include advanced age, depression, impaired cognition, and certain genetic profiles and underlying medical conditions, the researchers noted. But few studies have been conducted to carefully examine the effects of social isolation. Yet with both the aging population and the number of people living alone increasing they said, understanding the relationship between dementia and isolation may be of great importance.
Measuring "social isolation"
The researchers tracked more than 2,000 participants in the Amsterdam Study of the Elderly (AMSTEL) for three years. All participants were living independently and had no signs of dementia at the study's start. The researchers noted whether participants lived alone, whether they had social support, whether they had a partner or spouse, and whether they felt lonely. They found that 75 percent of participants said they had no social support, 46 percent lived alone, just under 50 percent were single and just under 20 percent felt lonely.
Three years later, participants were asked about their physical health, their ability to perform daily tasks, and whether they felt lonely. They also completed tests to assess their mental health and well-being, and to evaluate them for symptoms of dementia.
Upon first analysis, the researchers found no difference in dementia risk between those who were single and those who were married. But living alone, a lack of social support, and feelings of loneliness were all correlated with a higher risk.
After examining the different variables for potential interference with each other, the researchers concluded that people who lived alone were 70 to 80 percent more likely to develop dementia than people who lived with others. The same increase in risk was seen in people who were single when compared with those who were married or partnered. People who reported feelings of loneliness were an astonishing 150 percent more likely to develop dementia than people who did not report loneliness. These effects were seen equally in men and in women.
But when the researchers adjusted for potential confounding factors, such as age, suddenly none of the objective measures of social isolation (living alone, partnered status or lack of social support) made any contribution to dementia risk.
In contrast, people who felt lonely were still 64 percent more likely to develop dementia than people who did not.
"Interestingly, the fact that 'feeling lonely' rather than 'being alone' was associated with dementia onset suggests that it is not the objective situation, but, rather, the perceived absence of social attachments that increases the risk of cognitive decline," the researchers wrote.