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Living Alone Increases Your Risk of Dementia

Living Alone Increases Your Risk of Dementia Image

Living arrangements for aging Americans are decidedly leaning towards aging in place. Nearly all older adults prefer to age in the comfort of their long time homes and familiar community surroundings. Aging in place often means living alone. Pew Research findings show that older people are more likely to live alone in the United States than in any other country worldwide. This preference of living solo, however, comes with hidden danger. Research from Science Times reports that living alone in your fifties and sixties increases the likelihood of dementia by thirty percent.

The conclusion drawn is based on a report from sciencedirect.com, a website replete with large databases of scientific, academic, and medical research. Findings indicate that social isolation is a more important risk factor for dementia than previously identified. In this age of gray divorce (also grey divorce) and social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic, adults living alone in their fifties, sixties and beyond, are at greater risk than ever for cognitive decline, leading to dementia.

The lead author of the study, Dr. Roopal Desai, says that overall increases in dementia cases worldwide can be due to loneliness, stress, and the lack of cognitive stimulation that living alone brings. Biologically, cognitive stimulation is necessary to maintain neural connections, which in turn healthily keep a brain functioning. Staying socially interactive is as important to cognitive health as staying physically and mentally active.

Health care professionals in the U.S. are implementing a "social prescribing" strategy to improve the connection of a patient who lives alone to a prescribed range of services like community groups, personal training, art classes, counseling, and more. Unfortunately, in the days of COVID-19 social prescribing is limited to virtual connections between people. However, virtual social engagement is better than no social engagement at all.

Why can't an adult, choosing to age alone, maintain their health with physical exercise, crossword puzzles, and other activities that stimulate their brains without the input of human socialization? It turns out that social isolation presents a greater risk for dementia than physical inactivity, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. Brain stimulation is vastly different when a person engages in a conversation rather than in repetitive games and puzzles. Carrying on a conversation, whether in person or virtually, is far more stimulating and challenging to the brain's regions.

Conversation with other people chemically evokes neurotransmitters and hormones, which translates into increased feelings of happiness and reduced stress through purpose, belonging, improved self-worth, and confidence. It turns out that being human is undeniably an experience at its most healthy when shared, and a mentally healthy person is prone to stay more cognitively capable.

Maintaining this human connection can be challenging, particularly if you are one of the many Americans who are opting to age in place. In the first place, aging is replete with reasons to reduce activity and become isolated when facing particular types of stressful events common to later life years. Role changes associated with spousal bereavement through death or divorce, household management, social planning, driving, and flexibility all fall prey to functional and cognitive limitations. Without the benefit of an involved family or social prescription, it is easy for an aging adult to spiral into social isolation, loneliness, and depression, all of which are causally linked to cognitive decline.

If you or your aging loved one actively chooses to live alone, it is imperative to maintain a vibrant social life. Staying cognitively healthy is associated to satisfying social engagement as well as physical activity. If you live alone, reducing the risk of developing dementia will allow you to continue living out your years as imagined, with independence and control, thanks to your continued human interactions.

If you have concerns about your current living arrangements (or those of a loved one who needs care), please reach out. We help families create comprehensive legal plans that cover care and financial concerns. We’d be honored to speak with you.  And if you are outside of Florida, please contact an experienced Elder Law Attorney (preferably one that is Board Certified in Elder Law) to assist you.

Jason A. Penrod is only the 20th attorney to be Board Certified as an Elder Law Expert by the Florida Bar and the National Elder Law Foundation.  He is the founder of Family Elder Law (www.familyelderlaw.com) which has offices in Lakeland, Lake Wales, and Sebring, Florida.

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