Dr. Rebecca Mullen had been seeing a patient for about four years, and she noticed he was becoming more and more lonely — he would come to see her more often just for a social connection. Then, he started to experience a rapid decline in his memory and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
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There is a “whole variety of research” being done on solutions for loneliness, although it hasn’t focused much on those with memory problems at this point, said Dr. Rebecca Mullen, a researcher with the University of Colorado.
The existing strategies can involve fostering the connections a person already has, such as getting access to technology so a person can send emails or make Zoom videoconferencing calls, Mullen said.
Another strategy could be signing up for clubs, volunteering or joining social groups. A third method involves a person talking to someone about what they’re going through — such as through therapy or counseling, Mullen said.
“We don’t know which intervention works best for which patient right now,” but Mullen wants to figure out how care providers can best help people with memory problems who are experiencing loneliness, she said.
Dr. Rebecca Mullen had been seeing a patient for about four years, and she noticed he was becoming more and more lonely — he would come to see her more often just for a social connection.
Then, he started to experience a rapid decline in his memory and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Mullen wondered whether the man’s loneliness was “one of his first telltale signs” that he was developing a memory problem before people ever noticed it.
If she had seen the potential connection before, “could I have changed the trajectory of his memory decline?” Mullen wondered.
It’s the kind of question that led her to focus on the role of loneliness in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, the topic of a study she is conducting and seeking participants for.
There’s a growing body of research on the negative health impacts of loneliness, said Mullen, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Department of Family Medicine.
But “what is loneliness doing that may be impacting brain health? (And) is there a loneliness time frame that matters — does it matter how long someone is lonely for?” Mullen said.
Also on her mind: Does it matter whether someone recovers from loneliness?
Loneliness may seem like a difficult feeling to track, but there are a few “validated measures” of loneliness, Mullen said.
The most common one is the University of California, Los Angeles, or UCLA, loneliness questionnaire, she said. Researchers can measure different dimensions of loneliness, such as if a person is feeling a lack of companionship, feeling isolated or just left out. It’s the type of measure Mullen will use in her research.
For some people, loneliness may be a temporary feeling of missing friends, family or intimate relationships, but Mullen believes long-term loneliness may signal serious consequences, including cognitive decline and increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, according to a news release about her research.
A number of studies suggest that people with cognitive impairment have higher levels of loneliness than those without cognitive impairment, potentially due to the social disengagement that may occur with increased deficits in comprehension, memory and communication, Mullen said in the news release.
That’s one way that brain decline can fuel social isolation, a pattern that could then further intensify problems with the brain.
It's a “chicken and the egg” issue, Mullen said.
“Does loneliness always come first, then leading to memory problems down the road, or do memory problems come first and then they become lonely?” Mullen told Colorado Community Media.
Previous work has illustrated that those with transient, or temporary, loneliness do not have increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease, while those with persistent loneliness do, according to the news release.
Mullen’s research recently started, and she’s looking for more participants — and it’s not difficult to join the study.
The current patient cohort is 90% White, so Mullen is looking for people from different backgrounds to make the study more diverse.
“This is actually an issue (throughout the field), where the people we’re recruiting and engaging to be in our studies don’t reflect the population,” Mullen said.
Women are at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s than men, and Black Americans and Hispanic Americans are at a higher risk of Alzheimer’s compared to their White counterparts, Mullen said.
Her research will include healthy people without any signs or symptoms of cognitive decline and follow their changes in loneliness, brain activity and biomarkers, or signs of Alzheimer’s, according to the news release.
Those who decide to participate in the study would do an annual evaluation where researchers reach out and ask them a variety of questions about loneliness and memory, Mullen said.
Some participants may do brain imaging, she said. Mullen hopes people are willing to be involved for multiple years because the study needs to collect data over time. But there’s no weekly or monthly commitment needed to participate, she said.
Those interested in participating can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Jim Herlihy with the Colorado chapter of the Alzheimer's Association at 970-590-5885.
The Alzheimer’s Association is a nonprofit health organization that works to accelerate progress in the prevention and cure of Alzheimer’s.
Mullen, who teaches family-medicine residents at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, feels that there’s not enough attention on trying to understand the risk factors that can lead to Alzheimer’s.
“Because ideally, you (wouldn’t) even develop Alzheimer’s, so you (wouldn’t) need treatment. This is going to become so important as people” continue to live longer, Mullen said.
The prevalence of Alzheimer’s is expected to double over the next 30 years. In the U.S., there are 6.5 million people with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia — that’s projected to increase to 13 million in the U.S. by 2050, Mullen said.
Alzheimer’s disease is a memory-affecting condition that worsens over time, and dementia is a general term for loss of memory and other mental abilities that interferes with daily life.
“Understanding how (critical) our social health is for our brain — that is something we can all act on now,” Mullen said.
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