Midlife crisis: Loneliness in middle age fuels dementia, Alzheimer’s disease risks

BOSTON, Mass. — Months of isolation during the pandemic has created a great deal of concern for lonely seniors. While there’s little doubt loneliness can impact the mental health of the elderly, adults in midlife face dangers too. A new study reveals ongoing loneliness during middle age can make people more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, which affects over six million Americans. While there are a number of factors that lead to cognitive decline, lacking social contact can play a major role.

Luckily, researchers from Boston University School of Medicine also find persevering through loneliness can lessen dementia risk. Their study concludes those who overcome these feelings have better cognitive health than people who never experience loneliness at all.

Scientists say people between 45 and 64 years-old who are persistently lonely are at higher risk of dementia later on. The team looked at how continuously feeling lonely and isolated impacts adults over a span of 18 years.

Temporary loneliness may boost defense against dementia?

Researchers note there seems to be a distinct difference in the types of loneliness people may feel. For those struggling through coronavirus quarantine, the experience may strengthen their mental health later in life. Their findings do raise hope for people feeling lonely now during COVID-19 who could overcome this once the pandemic ends.

“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,” explains Professor Wendy Qiu in a university release.

Study authors add various coping techniques may help people deal with pandemic lockdowns, until officials finally lift public gathering restrictions.

Loneliness can come in many forms

Feeling lonely can happen to anyone at some point in their life, especially under extreme circumstances. On top of that, people differ in how long or how persistently they have these feelings.

Researchers say loneliness is a subjective condition which comes from a mismatch between a person’s desired and actual social relationships. Although it doesn’t have clinical disease status, previous studies have linked loneliness to a range of negative health conditions. These include depression, anxiety, and even the onset of physical ailments like diabetes and inflammation.

Prof. Qiu believes people who recover from brief loneliness will experience different long-term health consequences than those who are lonely for many years.

Linking loneliness to Alzheimer’s

In their new study, researchers wanted to shed light on the relationship between these different forms of loneliness and Alzheimer’s disease. The team examined data involving brain-healthy adults from the Framingham Heart Study.

In particular, they investigated whether ongoing loneliness more strongly predicts whether a person will develop the disease in comparison to fleeting loneliness. They also wanted to see whether this link is independent from depression and genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s.

In a promising discovery, researchers find persistent levels of loneliness has a link to higher Alzheimer’s risk. However, temporary loneliness displays a connection to a lower risk for developing dementia 18 years later.

After accounting for age, sex, education, social contact, living alone, physical health, and genetic factors, the results still show those who deal with temporary bouts of loneliness have lower risks for Alzheimer’s than those who report never experiencing loneliness.

Prof. Qiu notes the results should motivate further investigation of the factors that make individuals resilient against adverse life events. Researchers add that health professionals should tailor interventions to the right person at the right time. This will help avert the persistency of loneliness and promote brain health now and in the future.

The findings appear in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

SWNS writer Laura Sharman contributed to this report.