Scientists in the Netherlands have found that people who feel lonely – distinct from their actual social situation – are more likely to develop dementia later in life. The research, which is part of the Amsterdam Study of the Elderly, is published online on 10 December in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.
The researchers from VU University in Amsterdam followed 2,173 people over the age of 65 who did not have dementia and were living at home. The participants were asked to complete questionnaires covering a range of characteristics including health, cognition, daily functioning, depression, anxiety and feelings of loneliness. Social isolation was also assessed as whether participants lived alone, were unmarried or receiving no social support. Memory and thinking tests were used to test the cognitive performance of participants at the start of the study and after three years of follow-up.
The research found that, after adjusting for other risk factors, those participants who rated themselves as feeling lonely were 1.64 times more likely to develop dementia than those who did not express such feelings. However, this was distinct from social isolation factors such as living alone or being unmarried, which did not show a link to dementia risk.
Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, said:
“Research is showing us that there are a wide range of risk factors for dementia, including age, lifestyle and genetics. Age still remains the biggest risk factor for dementia, but this study links feelings of loneliness to a slightly higher risk of the condition. While such a finding could have important consequences for society, it is hard to determine cause and effect at this stage – feelings of loneliness could be a consequence of the early stages of dementia rather than a contributing factor.”
“With an increasingly ageing population in the UK, social isolation of the elderly is already a growing problem and it will be important to understand more about its effects on our health and wellbeing. There are 820,000 people in the UK already living with dementia, so unravelling the risk factors for the condition is of vital importance.”
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