For teenagers and young adults, having an active social life is practically a given—and studies show having a social circle is healthy for you. It turns out that it’s just as important for aging adults too. Loneliness has been linked to dementia, an age-related mental illness best known for leaving older individuals with impaired cognitive function and severe memory loss. For obvious reasons, being social diminishes feelings of loneliness, which, as we now know, can decrease the risk of developing dementia as you get older.
Let’s start by discussing what dementia actually is. Dementia is an age-related disease caused by damaged brain cells. Different regions of the brain have their own responsibilities with regards to how we function—if cells in one region are damaged, the functions associated with that area of the brain will suffer. The best example is Alzheimer’s disease, which is just one type of dementia. In these patients, the cells in the hippocampus region of the brain are usually the first ones to go. Because the hippocampus is responsible for memory retrieval and learning, the result is progressive memory loss.
It’s important to note that although most people associate dementia with memory loss, the condition can also be characterized by reduced communication and language skills, the inability to focus on tasks, struggling with reasoning and judgment, and impaired visual perception. Dementia is basically what happens when there’s such a decline in mental function that it beings to interfere with daily life.
Dementia is usually seen among older adults, and as our population ages, so will the number of dementia diagnoses. That’s why it’s especially comforting to know that when seniors have a healthy social life, they’ll not only benefit from improved overall health, but they’ll also be less likely to experience loneliness, which can lead to dementia.
Researchers followed over 2,000 individuals who either felt lonely or actually were alone, and at the start of the study, none of them showed any signs of dementia. The group of people varied in their degree of social activity: half lived alone for three or more years, half were divorced or single, three had no social support, and one fifth of them reported feelings of loneliness.
From those who lived alone, nine percent developed some form of dementia after a three-year period, versus five percent of those who lived with other people. Similar numbers were seen among the individuals that were single or divorced. Both of these groups were also 50% more likely to develop dementia further down the road.
Among the people who said they felt lonely, 13.4% ended up with dementia versus about five percent who developed it in the group of people who didn’t feel lonely. Lonely individuals were at a 65% greater risk of developing dementia later in life, but when being alone was combined with feeling lonely, that number jumped to 250%.
One possible explanation for the connection between social activity and loneliness is how much you’re using your brain. We know practice makes perfect when it comes to mental function and aging—when you’re not around other people, you don’t have as much opportunity to engage in conversation and exercise your mind.
Maintaining a healthy social life is probably one of the easiest anti-aging methods, especially when it comes to preventing the onset of dementia. It really couldn’t be simpler: the more you socialize, the less likely you are to be one of the millions who are diagnosed with dementia. So grab a friend, go out, and have some fun—it’s for your own good!
“What Is Dementia?,” Alzheimer’s Association web site; https://www.alz.org/what-is-dementia.asp, last accessed May 21, 2013