What Your Social Life Says About Your Brain Health

I want to ask you a question that could save your life: How lonely do you feel?

What I mean is, do you routinely engage with other people and feel a sense of belonging? Do you have solid relationships where you are cared for and appreciated?

It's easy to scoff at things like this. Surely there are bigger threats to our health and wellness. But loneliness, particularly in older folks, has seen a spike in recent years. And it serves as an indicator for serious – and deadly – side effects.

A new study out of Florida State University followed more than 12,000 folks aged 50 and older for 10 years. It's the longest timeframe for a study on dementia and loneliness.

What they found was that folks who reported feeling lonely had a 40% higher risk of developing dementia in that time. Now, the researchers had participants with many lifestyle differences. But this risk stayed the same even when they factored in things like education, gender, and ethnicity. But here's the kicker – it persisted no matter your level of social engagement.

That means if you force yourself to volunteer or take classes or do anything else to help you get more social, you could still feel lonely. The reason is not finding a sense of belonging: For socialization to work, you have to feel comfortable, engaged, and build strong relationships.

Another finding is that these folks at risk for dementia also had depression and health problems like diabetes. The researchers stated that they adjusted for these additional factors, but we have to wonder if they're related.

For instance, we already know that depression contributes to dementia and that doctors underdiagnose it in seniors. We've written before about symptoms of depression that folks 65 and older are more likely to experience. These include changes in behavior like irritability, trouble sleeping, appetite loss, aches and pains, memory loss, and feeling like a burden to friends and family.

Last year, we also wrote about the connection between loneliness and Alzheimer's, which is a form of dementia. The problem is that higher levels of loneliness may be a sign of Alzheimer's, or it could be a contributing factor. It's likely a bit of both. That means not being active socially or challenging your mind could lead to a buildup of plaques unique to Alzheimer's. Or, the plaque buildup could start to weigh on you emotionally and keep you from going out and socializing.

Even more startling… loneliness affects our immune systems, too. Research from the University of Chicago found that loneliness triggers an immune response. That's because loneliness affects the stress system in our brains. All that chronic stress signals to our immune system to gear up and raise inflammation levels.

We already know inflammation causes chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. And there's some evidence it may contribute to dementia and Alzheimer's as well. This explains how folks in this new study showed both inflammatory diseases (diabetes and high blood pressure) as well as higher risk of dementia.

Scientists need to nail down the exact pathways still. But this latest research strengthens our worry for the "loneliness epidemic."

Continue to socialize, but make sure it's something you enjoy. Don't go to the senior center if you don't enjoy it. There are plenty of classes at community colleges, gyms, yoga centers, and more for seniors to find activities they enjoy.

If you want a new hobby to meet people, make it an active one. Exercise is still the best way to keep our bodies healthy. It lowers inflammation and therefore keeps our brains healthy. In fact, we recommend racket sports since they offer the best workout for our cardiovascular health. So finding a tennis or squash club is a great option. Likewise, taking up ballroom dancing also mixes exercise with a great mental workout by learning routines.

Finally, don't neglect any symptoms of loneliness or depression. It isn't just a normal part of aging. If you find yourself struggling, talk to a friend or family member. You can also find counseling services in your area. Psychology Today has one of the best databases we've seen. Find it here.

Have a social activity you enjoy? Share it with us at [email protected].

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Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
November 6, 2018