Harvard Women's Health Watch

Loneliness might signal mental decline ahead

In the journals

Women usually live longer than men, so it's more common for us to live alone in our later years. That may not be a problem if we're happy and socially connected, but if our living situation makes us feel lonely, we could be at greater risk for developing dementia, according to a study published in the December 2012 Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry.

The study included 2,173 people in Amsterdam who initially had no signs of dementia. Participants were asked about their living situation, as well as feelings of loneliness and social isolation. They were also tested for signs of dementia.

The authors took into consideration any factors in the participants' lives that can cause dementia, such as medical disorders or depression. After three years, 13.4% of people who reported feeling lonely met the criteria for dementia, compared with only 5.7% of people who did not feel lonely. Interestingly, it wasn't being alone, but the feeling of loneliness that was related to mental decline. This finding "suggests that it is not the objective situation, but, rather, the perceived absence of social attachments that increases the risk of cognitive decline," the authors wrote. To combat feelings of loneliness and prevent mental decline, try to stay socially connected. Keep in touch with friends and family and try to do things together—for example, go to concerts, art museums, or dinners out at restaurants. If you're feeling lonely, ask your doctor to recommend a psychologist or therapist who can help.

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