Is Loneliness Impacting Your Brain Function?

Is Loneliness Impacting Your Brain Function?

Do you ever feel lonely or disconnected from others? You may feel like you’re the only one, but loneliness can affect anyone, even people who seem to have it all. Take former Today Show host Kathie Lee Gifford, for example. She struggle when her husband and her mother both died, then her adult children moved out of the family home. “I was dying of loneliness,” she told The Tennessean in an interview.

You don’t have to be suffering from grief to experience feelings of loneliness. Sports Illustrated model Georgia Gibbs recently took to Instagram in a revealing post, saying:

“…honestly, I just get super lonely sometimes. Loneliness I feel is still associated with a stigma, a feeling we are ashamed of and don’t really talk about…”

Loneliness can strike anyone at any age. In fact, a 2019 study in International Psychogeriatrics found that loneliness peaks at three periods in life: during the late 20s, mid-50s, and late 80s. Be aware that loneliness does not necessarily mean being alone or not having friends. It is subjective distress, meaning the discrepancy between the social relationships you have versus the ones you want.

A Lonelier Planet

Loneliness is on the rise. About 1 in 3 U.S. adults age 45 or over say they feel lonely, according to research by the AARP Foundation. Baby Boomers are aging alone more than any generation in U.S. history. About 10% of Americans who are 50 or older don’t have a spouse, partner, or living child. And other sad statistics from a 2017 survey show that more than 1 in 8 people report having no close friends. Former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy calls the rising number of lonely people a silent epidemic.

How Loneliness Affects the Brain

This is troubling because humans are social animals. Social connectivity is hard-wired into our brains. Loneliness or social isolation isn’t good for you, and it certainly isn’t good for your brain. Mounting evidence, including research in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, shows that when we are lonely and/or disconnected from others, it can have negative consequences for us cognitively, emotionally, and physically.

The loneliest among us experience cognitive decline 20% faster than people who are connected to others, and loneliness has been associated with depression, social anxiety, addictions, even hoarding, according to an article in Psychology Today. And loneliness is a recognized risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. The physical damage associated with being lonely was found to be equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to social-connectedness expert Julianne Holt-Lunstad.

And those lonely Baby Boomers? They have the highest rate of suicide and an increasing problem of drug addiction, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

The Social Media Lie

Why is it that in this age of “social media” we’re feeling more lonely? Social media is rapidly replacing in-person connections, but checking in with people online doesn’t provide us with the same benefits as socializing face-to-face. In fact, in a 2018 study, there was a clear, causal link between Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram and depression and loneliness, especially in teenage girls. A 2019 study in Body Image found that these sites also make vulnerable people feel worse about their bodies.

In my book, The End of Mental Illness, I talk about many of the social factors, including loneliness, that negatively impact mental health and cognitive function. And I offer simple, yet powerful steps you can take to improve the social connections in your life so you can enhance your brain health and psychological well-being.

The End of Mental Illness is written by psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and brain health expert Dr. Daniel Amen and relies on the latest neuroscience and leading-edge brain imaging to show that mental health is really brain health. The book reveals that “mental illnesses” are really “brain health issues” that steal your mind, and it shows how enhancing the 4 circles of your life (biological, psychological, social, and spiritual) can minimize “psychiatric” symptoms. Order your copy here.

If you want to join the tens of thousands of people who have already enhanced their brain health and overcome their symptoms at Amen Clinics, speak to a specialist today at 888-288-9834. If all our specialists are busy helping others, you can also schedule a time to talk.

10 Comments

  1. I never felt loneliness in my life, only envy when i see the others to be together and do stuff. When i don’t see them i don’t feel the need for other people in my life.
    So i feel strange when i am with needy people, why they need so much attention from others?
    I think that i have “schizoid personality disorder”, but psychiatrist diagnose “non organic psychosis”.

    Comment by Dimitris D — February 17, 2020 @ 3:43 AM

  2. Im not surprised but inspired to read the sharing and honesty of how loneliness is affecting so many peoples lives in this present time we are in as loneliness is not a visible condition and as my path and pilgrimage plays out,my life totally changed in 2013 when I suffered a brain injury,up until then my life had been totally filled up with my career,relationships ,exercise, living life to the full,this sudden and traumatic time in my life was very challenging to surrender to ,the past almost 7 years where everyone I have known seemed to disappear and not support me, I felt very alone,ignored confused and worthless by this surreal exp,it felt insane and so harsh at times,as I havn’t been able to return back to the work I once did, I truly believe a New Dawn has been born,
    As I tried many alternative ways to heal myself at times I have met with many lonely people that seem to be fading away,I recognised that some how my spirit was and is still strong in, in honesty I had never thought of ever praying to God,in fact it was in May of 2018 that he seeked me and lead me to a church where I had an encounter with him, he gave me the chance to receive his LOVE , and to acknowledge the new opportunity to heal grow and transform in a brand new way with him , I am grateful to still be here and get this opportunity to have a relationship with him and to now choose who I want to now hang out with as although we as humans need to engage with others I am also aware of who I share my precious time with,loneliness is a state of mind and I agree that social media does not support or heal a face to face and heart to heart conversation,
    I have felt guided to share my testimony as proof that God is real,he does forgive and from what I am experiencing he is supporting me in ways that I could have never imagined to be possible,I have peace and Love in my heart that I am most grateful for,I believe he is currently supporting me from being lonely,I do believe in Miracles this gift from him I acknowledge to be one,In glory praise and gratitude to God, I truly hope this inspires and supports whoever chooses to read this,my heart to yours,New Dawn

    Comment by Dawn — February 17, 2020 @ 1:54 PM

  3. I just want to say I appreciate your testimony… it is beautiful! Keep sharing it with whoever you can!

    Comment by sheila — February 17, 2020 @ 4:12 PM

  4. I have lived alone for 7 years and never felt lonely, I socialize at work and sometimes at gym.
    Am polite and happy but a lot of socializing drains me.i seem happier when alone

    Comment by Sean — February 17, 2020 @ 4:25 PM

  5. I am a baby boomer! ” OH” – say a lot of people. “That’s why you are lonely. You are old.” Actually, I don’t think this is the reason. My parents and grandparents were not lonely because they were surrounded by long term friends and all would pop over to each other’s houses for tea or a friendly chat, “just because.” I am a retired professor of Clinical Psychology and live in a neighborhood which offers a zillion activities for which I am very grateful. However, I am lonely. I know what depression is, all too well, and I admit there is some of that but my subjective self feels lonely – different from depression. I don’t like to get messages on Instagram, or even Text messages. Email is now considered Snail-Mail and the USPS letter belongs in antiquity. I miss a post card in the mail. Tangible. Someone has thought of me and cared enough to write it and put it in the mail and it arrives as a little jewel. Thought and Care have gone into this act. Remember the song, “Where have all the flowers gone – Gone to graveyards every one?” – Well, I feel like the familiarity I knew has gone into graveyards. I like to sit or walk with a real person. Hug them. Look into their eyes and connect. See smile lines, or frowns. Feel their hand in mine. Giggle over like-memories. In this techie society, I find myself looking at a cold screen, my computer, or iPhone, to see if someone has put their fingers to the virtual buttons or mouse and typed in a message. I don’t want a steel, glass computer for a friend. Living bodies give off energy. Can’t get that out of a computer or phone. I then get angry at myself for not appreciating when the kids download pictures. I would rather hear their voices. “They” don’t want to expend their time talking. “They” are embroiled in Virtual reality. “They” can’t really carry on a decent conversation. I am Lonely for Reality. I have several positions within my church. This is good. However, it does not fill up the Lonely Well inside of me. The world I grew up in, is no more. I take music lessons, read, give lectures. I enjoy all these things. It is the Human.Soul element I miss. Yes – I am lonely.

    Comment by Pamela — February 17, 2020 @ 4:32 PM

  6. I am 55, having lived alone my entire adult life, I know loneliness can be overwhelming. As has been said, the silence is deafening. My one close friend has moved away with her husband to a city 4 hrs. away.
    If I’m not in a store or Dr.’s appt., I can go days without hearing another voice. I’ve never been married, so there are no children to visit me.
    It seems hopeless at times. A solution to the loneliness is very difficult to find. I try to have hope that maybe someday things will change.

    Comment by Louise — February 17, 2020 @ 5:21 PM

  7. I am a Baby Boomer, and I fully agree with what you have shared with us. When I was young, our society was vastly more personal, stimulating, and interactive. Phones and or iPad screens are teaching us to be introverted, self- serving, and disengaged. Friends are what we all need, but where are they? Spontaneity and the joy of human companionship seem to have gone out of vogue. Very few people seem to have the courage to fight back against this scourge against humanity.

    Twenty years ago I formed a group of 16 friends from church who come to my home for Sunday lunch every other week. We also have Game Night one night a month. I try to keep track of who is sick, who has guests coming from out of town, whose birthday is coming up, etc. I will admit that this has been a huge commitment on my part, but it is the closest I can get to interacting with friends on an intimate level. Over the years, 3 of our friends have passed away, 4 have moved away, and 6 more have joined our group. I could not be more thankful for them, and they all seem to love our little community.

    I live in a lovely walkable neighborhood, but everyone zooms by in their cars. At church on Sundays we have to hurry out of the building quickly to allow another group to come in for the next service. Facebook posts encourage our children to deprive us of the company of our grandchildren if we voted for someone they do not like. Neighbors do not let their children play outside, even in their back yards, because they are afraid their kids will be kidnapped. Neighbors even complain if another neighbor’s guest parks in front of their house! These attitudes are damaging our brains! This “post-modern” lifestyle is literally making us sick! Thank you, Dr. Amen, for caring enough to teach us how to be healthy and happy.

    Comment by Karen — February 17, 2020 @ 8:48 PM

  8. Hi New Dawn
    I loved your story and I am so very happy for you. You will see everything differently and you Will be very happy all the t ime.
    I would like to be your friend… You can write to me whenever you feel like it.
    Take Good care of yourself !
    Good night for now
    Carmelita

    Comment by Carmelita — February 17, 2020 @ 9:05 PM

  9. Pamela
    Thank you for your comments articulating my feelings so well. Having a chat just for the hell of it, visiting just because you care to spend time with someone or miss them – where did that idea go? A thoughtful conversation is rare nowadays. The excuse of being too busy is really a copout. We make time for what is important to us. I too am old and have had my share of depression, but this Lonely Well you describe is different. I’m not one to be nostalgic for the good old days (which were not all that good) but I surely miss just hanging’ with real persons, being silly and laughing at dumb #$%#. Yes – I’m lonely too.

    Comment by Terry — February 18, 2020 @ 12:05 AM

  10. Please don’t be so quick to demonize social media. I am in my 80s and it is my only avenue of social contact. Therapy for anxiety only made situation worse. Thank God
    for internet and FB groups!

    Comment by Carol — March 1, 2020 @ 6:31 AM

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