The Lonely Hearts Club

You know the feeling. You are in a crowded room, yet you feel alone.    As humans, we all share a seemingly endless range of feelings and emotions.  Of course, all to varying degrees based on personalities and such.   For the most part, feelings are just a part of our daily lives and we can go through many in a single day or even a moment.  They can also wield great power, both beneficial and harmful.  Doctors have long touted the dangers of too much stress, anger and anxiety in one’s life.  They have all shown to increase the risks of physical ailments and diseases and may even cause death.  On the other side, you have feelings such as happy, excited and love, all of which have positive effects on our bodies and minds.  Unfortunately, not all feelings are as simple to understand or control.  One of these is loneliness.

As the saying points out, one can “feel” lonely in a crowd.  It is important to remember that there is a difference between being alone and feeling lonely.   Throughout the years, researchers have discovered that people who describe themselves as lonely often are married/partnered, have families and social networks.  They have also discovered that these people are at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.   A study at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago tracked 823 older adults for years.  They discovered that those individuals who “described” themselves as lonely were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.   Experts have long known that older adults who were isolated or had little to no human contact were at a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s, but were unsure of how, or if,  feeling lonely had similar results. Robert S. Wilson, PhD was among those conducting the research.  He said,  “Humans are very social creatures. We need healthy interactions with others to maintain our health.  The results of our study suggest that people who are persistently lonely may be more vulnerable to the deleterious effects of age-related neuropathology.”

The Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University reported on a similar study in the Netherlands.  Researchers studied over 2,100 adults in the range of 65-86 who showed no signs of Alzheimer’s or other dementia.  As in the previous study, they asked the participants to rank themselves on their level of loneliness.  They concluded that the results of feeling lonely could increase the risk of developing dementia.  The report stated “It is possible that feelings of loneliness may cause changes in the nervous system that dampen connections between brain cells, making the brain less able to protect itself against the onslaught of Alzheimer’s.”  Whether or not this is how it occurs is unsure.  The important thing is that research supports a cause and effect link to loneliness and Alzheimer’s.

Unfortunately, older adults are susceptible to loneliness for many reasons, including loss of friends and peers their age or lack of mobility due to physical ailments.  Even if they have family nearby or neighbors they interact with, they may still feel lonely and isolated.   Tzameret Fuerst, a young social entrepreneur working in Africa to stop the spread of HIV had an epiphany in regards to older adults and loneliness.   She described the feelings of dread and isolation that she felt as she returned to her empty hotel room every night.  There was no internet or wifi connections.  She was cut off from connecting with all of her family and friends.  She was feeling extremely lonely and then it hit her…this is how her bed ridden grandmother must have felt…. Fuerst goes on to stress the importance of maintaining close connections with the older adults in our lives, be they family, friends, neighbors, etc…keeping them engaged and giving them purpose.

As caregivers and loved ones it is important that we recognize and treat emotional symptoms as well as the physical so as to provide the highest quality of living as possible.  Even if it didn’t increase the risk of Alzheimer’s, loneliness is tragic on its own, but is preventable.

Do you know an older adult who might be lonely?  Do you consider yourself lonely even though you are surrounded by friends and family?  Please share your stories here with us so that others may learn and benefit from your experiences.