Nobody likes getting old, but those without close friends might have it worse than others. According to a recently study, loneliness could be very harmful to the long-term health of the brain.
A Solid Source
A lack of companionship can hasten the demise of the brain’s cognitive functions. Such was the finding of a collaborative report between researchers from Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. This group’s work was featured at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference , a six-day event held in Washington D.C.
For their study, the Harvard/Brigham and Women’s team reviewed a massive amount of data. This information was originally gathered by the US Health and Retirement Survey (HRS), a long-term project undertaken by the University of Michigan. In all, the team examined the mental health of more than 8,300 seniors, who were monitored by the HRS over a period lasting from 1998 to 2010.
The mental state of these participants was documented thoroughly at two-year intervals; not only was the prevalence of depression and memory loss measured among this group, but also the their feelings of loneliness. When the HRS began tracking the seniors, slightly more than one in six (17 percent) claimed to be leading lonely lives.
As expected, the subjects’ mental capabilities declined over the ensuing twelve years. However, the rate of decline was not evenly distributed; loss of cognitive ability occurred at a 20 percent faster clip in socially isolated seniors, a figure that has also been observed in older adults gripped by intense depression. Even when the seniors’ demographic information was taken into account ‒ a category consisting of factors such as age, gender, race, health and financial status ‒ the connection between a solitary lifestyle and an accelerated decline in mental health remained firm.
The Root of the Problem
While highlighting the relationship between the loneliness and cognitive decline, the Harvard/Brigham’s Hospital study does not necessarily mean that the former causes the later. In fact, it might be the case that both problems are triggered by the same culprit.
The authors believe that psychological stress might be the guilty party. In short, this term describes the reactions the brain has to threats that it deems to be possibly insurmountable. Previous research has indicated that this form of stress can leave its mark on the brain, and therefore could have a significant impact on mental health.
Dr. Nancy Donovan, one of the study’s authors and a geriatric psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s, intends to conduct additional research on this topic. By addressing the issue of loneliness, Donovan believes that doctors could help preserve the mental health of seniors. In an interview discussing her team’s work, she noted that “helping to remediate those symptoms may actually reduce the incidents of cognitive decline and dementia.”