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Loneliness may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease, study finds

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Subtle feelings of solitude might be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease in older adults, suggests a new study.

Scientists have always believed that loneliness can be harmful to the health of older people. According to lead researcher of the new study Dr. Nancy Donovan, Director, Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, studies have long shown that adults who are socially active have less possibility of developing dementia.

But the findings of this study suggest that that the link may also work the other way around – that older individuals who are in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease might be more befitting to feel socially detached, or lonely.

People who began to amass amyloid protein may not be understanding, perceiving or responding to social interactions well, said Dr. Donovan. This could be and early sign of cognitive decline, she added.

early sign

According to 2010 AARP (American Society of Retired Persons) report, around 32 percent of people aged between 60 and 69, and 25 percent of elderly aged 70 years and over in the U.S. feel lonely.

In addition to elevated risk of heart disease, depression, and stroke, loneliness in older individuals has been linked with significant risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.

Read more Loneliness Kills More People Than Obesity, Say Researchers

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Rita Hayworth was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1980 and died in 1987 at the age of 68. The public revelation of her illness drew national and global attention to Alzheimer’s, this in turn helped to increase public and private support and funding for Alzheimer’s research.

In the new study, researchers found healthy seniors with increased levels of amyloid — a type of protein fragment associated with Alzheimer’s disease — in the brain – appear more likely to experience feelings of loneliness than people with lower levels of amyloid.

The amyloid proteins can form clumps called plaques in the hippocampus region of the brain. These amyloid plaques are considered a hallmark of Alzheimer’s.

According to Dr. Donovan, people who had high levels of these proteins – individuals who were really at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease – were 7.5 times more inclined to be lonely compared to the non-lonely.

Loneliness – an early sign of Alzheimer’s?

To test their hypothesis, the team studied 79 adults (43 women and 36 men) with an average age of 76 and no signs of cognitive problems.

The participants had to answer questions designed to evaluate how lonely they felt. The UCLA Loneliness Scale was used to gauge their loneliness.

The answers are scored on a 4-point scale, with 1 representing “never” and 4 representing “often.” In total, participants’ average loneliness score was 5.3 out of 12.

Read more A rocky marriage may actually help men stave off diabetes

Using brain imaging scans, the team measured amyloid protein levels in cortical areas of the individuals’ brains, including the frontal, lateral temporal and lateral, and medial parietal regions.

They found participants with high cortical amyloid levels were 7.5 times more likely to report feeling lonely, even after the team accounted for the participants’ age, sex, social network, and whether they suffered from anxiety or depression.

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This connection was stronger among participants who carried APOEε4 – a gene that is linked with increased risk of Alzheimer’s.

The study however, does not prove a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the two.

The researchers say their findings point to loneliness as a sign of early Alzheimer’s.

The study also has its share of drawbacks; it was performed in a very tiny group of older adults living in Boston – a city whose residents are typically considered better educated and may be more active emotionally. Dr. Gisele Wolf-Klein, a director at Northwell Health, located in Great Neck, N.Y., believes larger studies involving a variety of people should be conducted in order to validate these findings.

Read more Loneliness affects immune system, increases risk of death, study finds

The researchers weren’t sure what type of intervention would result if their study was substantiated by other bigger studies. For example, if interventions were created where individuals were taken out of their solitude and engaged in social affair, would they less likely be progressing toward dementia?

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President Ronald Reagan died from complications associated with Alzheimer’s disease in 2004.

In an editorial, which was linked to the study, Dr. Paul B. Rosenberg, of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, MD, says the new findings may facilitate the development of early screening methods for Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Donavan calls this study a first step, and says it’s too early to provide solid advice based off of the results. Until more is known, however, numerous reasons point to health benefits of being socially active. She said it’s difficult to hypothesize and say that if a person is lonely, he or she is more likely to have Alzheimer’s, but it could certainly be one of the characteristics of people who are more susceptible to the disease.

The findings of the study were published in the JAMA Psychiatry.

Facts about Alzheimer’s

  • Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that slowly destroys memory and cognitive skills, and ultimately the ability to carry out simple everyday tasks such as buttoning a shirt, tying shoe laces, and even eating food.
  • It is the most common type of dementia, accounting for about 60-70% of all dementia cases. Together with other forms of dementia, Alzheimer’s affects 47.5 million people worldwide.
  • The disease gives rise to 7.7 million new cases each year.
  • Age is one of the risk factors of Alzheimer’s. People over the age of 70 are at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
  • Alzheimer’s has been recently ranked as the third leading cause of death in the United States. An estimated 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, of whom 5.1 million are aged 65 and older.
  • Around 850,000 people in the UK are affected by the disease.
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Salahuddin Ahmed is a freelance medical writer and blogger, who has been writing about medicine and health for more than a decade. A former New York transplant, he now lives in his native Dhaka. He received a Bachelor's degree from the University of Louisiana and a diploma on eTechnology from NIIT, Dhaka. A voracious eater, Salahuddin only dines at restaurants that offer free refills on rice.