Loneliness is Bad for Our Brains

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. was seeing what was called an “epidemic” of loneliness among seniors. Just before the pandemic, a study from the University of Michigan found that 25% of older adults reported feeling lonely. Experts believe that number has risen during the pandemic, due mostly to the isolation and distancing needed to protect seniors from the virus.

Loneliness is a health problem—experts have called it “as bad for our health as smoking or obesity.” In particular, say these experts, loneliness is very bad for our brains, raising the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and several other types of dementia. Why is social isolation so cognitively damaging?

For one thing, when we spend most of our time alone, we miss out on a great source of mental stimulation. Our brains are wired for interacting with others. Conversation is a complex activity. We listen, we think, we make decisions, we interpret what the other person might be thinking … in short, interacting with others is just about the best brain exercise there is!

The condition of loneliness is incredibly damaging to the brain. Studies show it damages our immune system, raises our blood pressure, increases stress and depression—and even hastens cellular aging.

People who feel alone are less likely and motivated to follow brain-healthy lifestyle choices. Family and friends urge each other to have regular checkups and exercise. And people who eat alone are more likely to subsist on processed, less-nutritious foods.

Loneliness promotes habits that damage the brain. A sense of isolation increases the likelihood that we will smoke, drink too much alcohol, or use dangerous drugs. It increases sensations of pain, which might make us use more pain medication than is safe.

Overcoming barriers to social contact – even now

Staying socially connected can be harder in our later years. But it’s definitely worth it! Of course, a visit from your LifeSource Home Health caregiver is always a plus. Here are some other suggestions to consider. Take COVID-related precautions as recommended by your doctor and local public health authorities.

  • Spend time with family. Babysit the grandkids or great-grandkids if you can; intergenerational contact is great for the brain.
  • Spend time with friends. Experts say that non-family social ties may be even more beneficial than family time! Call a friend, plan a walking date, invite a neighbor over for coffee.
  • Make a habit of seeking out interactions all day. Say hello to the mailman and the bus driver. Chat with the checker at the market. The experts say that even these brief interactions with a wide variety of people can help.
  • Go online. While Facebook friends and chat room conversations aren’t as beneficial as in-person socialization, they do provide much of the brain exercise and emotional satisfaction of in-person interactions. And they’re much safer right now.
  • Get a part-time job. For many of us, work was where the people were. Today, many older adults are picking up a few bucks and finding social context in a part-time job.
  • Join a club or take a class. Take up a hobby that you can safely do with others—anything from quilting to playing bridge to performing in an amateur musical group.
  • Volunteer. Volunteering might be the most potent anti-loneliness drug there is, and today, senior volunteers are more important than ever. There are volunteer opportunities for almost everyone.

One more note: Studies have found that certain brain changes associated with dementia can increase feelings of loneliness. If you or a loved one seem to feel more lonely even though you haven’t changed your usual routine, report this to the doctor.

Source: IlluminAge AgeWise