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Study Links Loneliness to Increased Risk of Dementia

Update Date: Dec 11, 2012 04:39 AM EST

A new study links feelings of loneliness to an increased risk of developing dementia in later life.

The authors of the research say that many factors like impaired cognition, old age, depression etc., have been linked to the development of Alzheimer's disease; the potential impacts of loneliness and social isolation have not been explored to a great extent.

They suggest that given the current scenario, where we have a great number of aging individuals and households where people stay all by themselves, loneliness as a factor behind development of dementia is potentially important.

For the study, researchers followed up with the long-term health and well-being of more than 2,000 people who had no signs of dementia and were living alone for three years.

After three years, the researchers conducted tests to assess the mental health and well-being of all participants.  Also, the participants were quizzed about their physical health and their ability to carry out routine daily tasks, and specifically asked if they felt lonely, Medical Xpress reported.

At the end of the three years, participants were also tested for signs of dementia. The participants comprised of those who were living alone and those who were single or no longer married.

About three out of four participants reported no social support, and one in five said they felt lonely. When tested for signs of dementia, it was found that among those who lived alone, about one in 10 (9.3%) tested positive compared with one in 20 (5.6%) of those who lived with others.

Among those who had never married or were no longer married, similar proportions developed dementia and remained free of the condition.

However, one in 20 of those without social support developed dementia, compared with one in 10 who reported having social support.

And when it came to those who said they felt lonely, more than twice as many of them developed dementia after three years compared to those who did not feel this way, the report said.

Also, people who were alone or no longer married were found to have about 75 percent chances of developing dementia compared to those who were married or had companions living with them.

The results were the same for both sexes.

"These results suggest that feelings of loneliness independently contribute to the risk of dementia in later life," write the authors.

They add that 'feeling lonely' rather than 'being alone' was linked to the risk, which means, it is not the objective situation, but, the perceived absence of social attachments which are responsible, they add.

The researchers say that loneliness may affect cognition and memory as a result of loss of regular use, or that loneliness could in itself be a sign of emerging dementia, and either be a behavioral reaction to impaired cognition or a marker of undetected cellular changes in the brain.

The study was published online in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry. 

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