Loneliness linked to memory decline, study says

BARCELONA, Spain — Many people feel lonely from time to time, but could feelings of isolation and social frustration be taking a toll on our memories? Quite possibly, according to researchers at the University of Barcelona. Scientists report certain people who feel lonely over a sustained period of time may experience an elevated decline in their verbal memory skills.

These findings are part of the larger Lifebrain consortium led by the University of Oslo in Norway. Researchers included three participant groups in this research. Two groups from Sweden and Germany included older adults, while the third involved Danish adolescents. Across all three groups, a total of 1,537 people took part in this project.

It’s important to clarify that loneliness doesn’t necessarily mean being alone. As many can attest, it’s very possible to feel lonely while surrounded by other people physically. For the purposes of this research, study authors defined loneliness as “a negative feeling associated with dissatisfaction with the quantity and quality of social connections.”

Loneliness has wide-ranging effects on health

Many studies have revealed how feeling lonely impacts physical health, mental well-being, and even increases a person’s risk of cognitive decline considerably. The research team measured each person’s loneliness levels via a series of surveys on perceived social acceptance and belonging to a group. Respondents also revealed if they had anyone in their lives they could converse with frankly. Researchers measured episodic memory skills using word-recall tasks.

Surprisingly, the collected long-term longitudinal data indicated that while feelings of loneliness had a connection to memory decline among Swedish participants. However, lonely German participants didn’t show the same memory issues.

“Cultural differences in how people perceive and deal with social isolation could partially account for the differences encountered,” says lead study author Cristina Solé-Padullés, from the University of Barcelona, in a media release.

Moreover, even the connection between loneliness and memory decline among the Swedish volunteers disappeared once study authors excluded any participants diagnosed with dementia during the tracking period. As mentioned earlier, this finding in particular reinforces the already established connection between loneliness and cognitive decline.

It’s important to note, however, that researchers found no significant connections between any brain regions and loneliness – even after comparing MRIs with feelings of loneliness. This is curious because prior research had suggested that the “neurobiology” of loneliness is associated with specific neural regions within the brain in charge of emotional processing and empathy.

“Associations between loneliness and memory decline are not consistent among countries and ages, partly because there are cultural differences making some people more tolerant to social isolation. Loneliness can cause memory decline in some older adults, but memory decline can also cause increased feelings of loneliness,” Solé-Padullés concludes.

The study is published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

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