MONTREAL, Quebec — Loneliness and social isolation can increase the risk of developing dementia, a new study explains. Researchers in Canada say the risk factors of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD) include smoking, excessive drinking, poor sleep, and a lack of frequent exercise. Their study reveals that people with these habits have greater odds of being lonely and lacking social support.

While ADRDs can be the result of many unchangeable things, such as genetics, the study offers an easier way to reduce the risk of these neurological conditions. By providing more social support and placing more preventative measures to prevent loneliness, the team believes older adults can avoid an ADRD diagnosis.

Researchers studied data on 502,506 UK Biobank participants and 30,097 people in the Canadian Longitudinal Study of Aging. Both studies asked participants about their feelings of loneliness, frequency of social interaction, and amount of social support they receive.

In the Canadian study, increased regular participation in physical exercise with other people displayed a connection to a 20.1-percent decrease in the odds of feeling lonely and a 26.9-percent decrease in having a poor social support network.

Physical and mental health factors previously linked to ADRD, such as cardiovascular disease, vision or hearing impairment, diabetes, and neurotic and depressive behaviors, also had an association with social isolation.

Hearing problems can lead to loneliness

The UK data showed that having difficulty hearing when surrounded by background noise led to a 29-percent increase in the odds of feeling lonely.

People struggling to hear also saw a 9.86-percent increase in the odds of lacking social support.

The probability of feeling lonely and feeling unsupported was 3.7 and 1.4 times greater, respectively, as a function of a participant’s score for neuroticism. This is a personality trait which describes someone who feels anxious, depressed, or has other negative feelings.

ADRDs are a growing public health crisis, with an annual global cost of more than $1 trillion. Roughly six million Americans has some form of dementia and estimates project that number to triple by 2050.

“Given the uncertain impact of social distancing measures imposed by COVID-19, our findings underscore the importance of investigating the multiscale effect of social isolation to inform public health interventions for ADRD,” says lead author Kimia Shafighi from McGill University, according to a statement from SWNS.

This study is published in the journal PLoS ONE.

South West News Service writer Alice Clifford contributed to this report.

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