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Loneliness Increases Risk for Alzheimer's Disease

Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D. Updated: Mar 1st 2007

A new study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry (February 2007; Vol 64, pages 234-240) explores a fascinating connection between loneliness and Alzheimer's disease (AD). This study suggests that feeling lonely (defined as socially isolated and disconnected from others) doubles your risk of developing AD in old age. Interestingly, the size of your social network itself is not important, but rather, how connected you are to that network. So, according to these findings, a person who has lots of casual acquaintances and few close confidants is actually worse off than a person who shares a close and meaningful connection with a small number of friends.

The researchers pointed out that is not completely clear how loneliness increases our risk of developing AD. Autopsies of study participants (the only true way to confirm a diagnosis of AD) indicated that loneliness was not causing the physical brain changes characteristic of AD, suggesting that yet another factor is coming into play.

The authors of this study think that loneliness may be decreasing our so-called "brain reserve capacity." Neuroscientists use this term to describe our brain's resilient ability to keep functioning in spite of deterioration. Brain reserve is a buffer or protection against diseases and age-related changes that eat away at neurons (cells in the brain and nervous system that process and transmit information). So, the brains of people who are lonely are more vulnerable to the ravages of AD (which destroys neurons responsible for memory and thinking skills).

To counter this risk, it's important that you participate in social activities, and increase the number of close people in your social network (people other than your spouse whom you feel close to and can confide in) to about seven, particularly as you get older. Again, remember that quality, not quantity, is most important. Be choosy! Conserve your valuable time and energy and focus on friends who are worth the investment.

Though having close and caring friends won't completely eliminate your risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, this is a relatively easy strategy that can also benefit your mood and mental health.


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