WEDNESDAY, Nov. 2, 2016 (HealthDay News) — Subtle feelings of loneliness might warn of impending Alzheimer’s disease in older folks, a new study suggests.
Healthy seniors with elevated brain levels of amyloid — a type of protein fragment associated with Alzheimer’s disease — seem more likely to feel lonely than people with lower levels of amyloid, researchers found.
“For people who have high levels of amyloid — the people truly at high risk for Alzheimer’s — they were 7.5 times more likely to be lonely than non-lonely,” said lead researcher Dr. Nancy Donovan. She’s director of the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Studies have long shown that people who remain socially active are less likely to develop dementia, Donovan said.
But the results of the new study suggest that that relationship may work the other way around, as well — that people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s might be more apt to feel lonely, or socially detached.
“People who are starting to accumulate amyloid may not be as well-functioning in terms of perceiving, understanding or responding to social stimuli or interactions,” Donovan said. “This could be an early social signal of cognitive [mental] change.”
If this is proven, then doctors might be able to screen for Alzheimer’s by paying closer attention to patients’ emotional health, she suggested.
Brain plaques formed from sticky amyloid proteins are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health. These plaques form in the spaces between the brain nerve cells of Alzheimer’s patients, although their connection to the disease is not fully understood at this time.
To examine the relationship between late-life loneliness and Alzheimer’s risk, Donovan and her colleagues examined 43 women and 36 men, average age 76. All were healthy, with no signs of Alzheimer’s or dementia.
The researchers used standard psychological exams to measure each person’s degree of loneliness, and imaging scans to detect the amount of amyloid protein in their brains. The investigators particularly focused on amyloid levels in the cerebral cortex, a part of the brain that plays a key role in memory, attention, perception and thought.
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