Many people make assumptions about aging, what it is like to grow “old”, and how older age will affect them. But as we are getting older, it is important to understand the positive aspects of aging. As people age, some may find themselves feeling isolated and alone. This can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and sadness.
However, these feelings are not a normal part of aging as growing older can have many emotional benefits, such as long-lasting relationships with friends and family and alifetime of memories to share with loved ones. In fact, studies show that older adults are less likely to experience depression than young adults. So, when should you be concerned? It’s important to remember that older adults with depression may have less obvious symptoms or be less likely to discuss their feelings. Depression is a common and potentially serious mood disorder, but there are treatments that are effective for most people.
Learn more about depression and older adults.
1. Loneliness can affect brain health and mental sharpness
Older adults who are socially isolated or feel lonely also tend to perform worse on tests of thinking abilities, especially when required to process information rapidly. And those who feel lonely show more rapid decline in performance on these same tests over several years of follow-up testing. It is thought that loneliness may contribute to cognitive decline through multiple pathways, including physical inactivity, symptoms of depression, poor sleep and increased blood pressure and inflammation.
Loneliness has also been found to increase the risk of developing dementia by as much as 20%. In fact, loneliness has an influence similar to other more well-established dementia risk factors such as diabetes, hypertension, physical inactivity and hearing loss. Although the underlying neural mechanisms are not fully understood, loneliness has been linked with the two key brain changes that occur in Alzheimer’s disease: the buildup of beta-amyloid and tau proteins in the brain. Other indicators of psychological distress, such as repetitive negative thinking, have also be linked with the buildup of beta-amyloid and tau in the brain. Theories suggest that loneliness and other psychological stressors act to chronically trigger the biological stress response, which in turn appears to increase beta-amyloid and tau accumulation in the brain.
2. Social activity can buffer against the decline
Maintaining high quality relationships may be a key for protecting brain health from the negative impacts of loneliness. Older adults who feel more satisfied in their relationships have a 23% lower risk of dementia, while those who feel their relationships are supportive have a 55% lower risk of dementia, compared to those who feel dissatisfied or unsupported in their relationships.
Maintaining social activity also buffers against decline in thinking abilities, even for those who live alone or who have signs of beta-amyloid accumulation in their brain. One reason for these benefits to brain health is that maintaining strong social ties and cultivating satisfying relationships may help people to cope better with stress; people who feel better able to cope with difficulties or bounce back after a stressful event show less buildup of tau protein in their brains. This is good news because, with the importance of social distancing for controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, how people manage their feelings and relationships is likely more important for brain health than the fact that they are spending time physically apart.