Meaningful social relationships are an important part of emotional health and quality of life, but there are ties between social connectedness and brain health, too.
In a recent study I helped conduct at Ohio State University (link is external), my colleagues and I found higher rates of concentration and memory difficulties among breast cancer survivors who experienced high degrees of loneliness, relative to others with lower rates of loneliness. Previous research had already discovered links between loneliness and physical well-being — feeling like the quality of your relationships isn’t optimal is a risk factor for a wide variety of health problems, including cardiovascular issues — but our recent study broke new ground in finding connections between social isolation and cognitive functioning. It’s very clear that lonelier people are experiencing concentration and memory difficulties, something we didn’t really know before.
The Link Between Loneliness and the Brain
Scientists already understood that loneliness could have a negative impact on the brain. There’s a known connection between feelings of being unloved and uncared for and a type of brain inflammation known to be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, something that suggested a potential link between loneliness and the brain’s overall ability to function. At the same time, there had been relatively little research proving that loneliness could actually impact key aspects of cognition, like attention span and memory.
In order to determine whether loneliness could lead to declining brain health, my research team and I looked at three groups of breast cancer survivors, along with control groups consisting of subjects who were not cancer survivors. For the first two studies, participants self-reported on their degree of perceived loneliness and cognitive function; one group was given more standard research questionnaires and cognition tests. The three phases of the study produced remarkably consistent results. It wasn’t just lonelier breast cancer survivors who were experiencing cognitive difficulties. Attention and memory issues appeared among the control groups as well, suggesting that it was loneliness and not cancer treatment that explained the waning concentration and memory.
The Treatment Dilemma
The link between social isolation and brain health would seem to be an important breakthrough for treating cognitive problems. But the research raises some complex additional questions and highlights the difficulty of measuring subjective variables which impact cognitive performance. We now have a basis for exploring links between loneliness and neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s. Exploring the connection between social isolation and severe brain disorders could help doctors develop new treatment methods for addressing cognitive problems, as well as help them recognize some of the causes of concentration and memory issues in their patients. At the same time, loneliness is an abstract concept, based on subjective feelings about how connected or disconnected one feels. Researchers are still unsure about how or even whether loneliness can be clinically treated, as we don’t really have clear evidence about how to reduce loneliness. It’s a difficult problem to solve.
Still, the new research reiterates an important idea: Physical health and mental health are not just impacted by illness and disease, but also by these somewhat more abstract phenomena of whether you feel loved or cared for, whether you are socially engaged, and whether you take notice of these engagements. Meaningful social connections can be as fundamental to someone’s well-being as a healthy diet. Just as we must have nutrition to live and thrive, we also need the sustenance of our social connections as well.