September 14, 2021
The Dangers of Social Withdrawal for Seniors Struggling with Memory LossMemory Care
Seniors experiencing memory loss may soon find themselves on a journey riddled with emotional ups and downs. It’s not an easy place to be. Many will have experiences that cause them to feel frustration, disappointment, embarrassment, anger or mistrust along the way. Unfortunately, an increase in these types of feelings can lead some seniors to withdraw from social engagement and become highly isolated.
Social isolation for seniors, especially those struggling with memory loss, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, is detrimental to not only their emotional well-being but also their physical and mental health. To highlight some of the dangers associated with social withdrawal for seniors struggling with memory loss, this article delves into research surrounding the topic.
The Physical Health Risks
Social withdrawal has become increasingly recognized as a risk factor for senior health. Regardless of any emerging memory loss, individuals in this age group are already at increased risk of experiencing the dangers of loneliness. The most tangible of these dangers are the physiological ones.
The CDC explains that “although it’s hard to measure social isolation and loneliness precisely, there is strong evidence that many adults aged 50 and older are socially isolated or lonely in ways that put their health at risk.” The organization cites recent studies with findings that indicate:
- Social isolation significantly increases a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
- Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) is associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
- Loneliness among heart failure patients is associated with a nearly 4 times increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.
It’s also been reported that because loneliness can lead to long-term “fight-or-flight” stress signaling, it negatively affects immune system functioning. Therefore, seniors who feel lonely have less immunity and more inflammation than people who don’t.
These are eye-opening statistics surrounding the physical health risks of loneliness for older adults. Compounding the risks is the added struggle for those seniors who face memory decline. In these cases, it’s not just about managing the direct impacts of memory loss, but also the indirect ones associated with social withdrawal that can create adverse physiological health outcomes.
The Mental & Cognitive Health Risks
While individuals with memory loss are already experiencing a decline in specific functions of the brain, there are even more aspects of mental and cognitive health to be compromised when social withdrawal enters the mix. It is thought that loneliness may contribute to cognitive decline through multiple pathways, including:
- Physical inactivity
- Symptoms of depression
- Poor sleep
- Increased blood pressure
When we’re talking about seniors facing memory loss, many fall into the diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness has been found to increase the risk of developing dementia by as much as 20%. In fact, it has an influence that mimics some of the other more well-established dementia risk factors, such as diabetes, hypertension, physical inactivity and hearing loss.
An inherent byproduct of social withdrawal, loneliness has been linked with the two key brain changes that occur in Alzheimer’s disease: the buildup of beta-amyloid and tau proteins in the brain. Theories suggest that loneliness and other psychological stressors act to chronically trigger the biological stress response, which in turn appears to increase beta-amyloid and tau accumulation in the brain.
Loneliness also puts stress on the vascular system by raising cortisol levels, which raises heart rate and blood pressure. Some research indicates that high blood pressure raises the risk of dementia by narrowing blood vessels and limiting blood flow to the brain. Additionally, loneliness can negatively impact sleep, and poor sleeping patterns can dramatically progress dementia. Sleep is an essential health restorative that is critical for memory creation, learning and emotional health.
Another likely way that social isolation impacts brain function is by suppressing emotional health. Among dementia patients, depression appears in 9 to 68 percent of them and may play a key role in cognitive decline. Some experts believe that depression may damage the hippocampus, which is essential for learning and memory.
The Emotional Health Risks
Speaking of depression and other emotional health dangers, it’s important to understand how seniors who withdraw socially as a result of memory loss can suffer immense emotional distress. Issues such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem often result from social isolation.
Although their memory might not be perfect, the feelings of people living with dementia are very real and can impact the majority of their day. Often, the emotions felt by seniors with dementia far outlast the memory of what triggered them in the first place. Therefore, when loneliness from social withdrawal goes unchecked, challenging behaviors can emerge.
On the other hand, it’s been said that social isolation can also involve emotional isolation, or an unwillingness/inability to share one’s feelings with others. When socially isolated individuals lack emotional interaction and support, they can become emotionally numb. In other words, they may become detached from their own feelings.
The bottom line is that the further detached a senior with memory decline becomes from their connection to other humans, their close relationships, their social circle and their sense of community and belonging, the more emotional damage this withdrawal can incur.
The Key to Managing Health Risks of Social Withdrawal
It can be utterly heartbreaking to watch a loved one experience first the struggle of memory loss and then the pain and suffering that accompanies social withdrawal. The resulting physical, mental and emotional risks are major concerns for seniors in this challenging phase of life. As such, it’s paramount to support your loved one in staying socially connected throughout the journey.
A memory care community just might be the best way to ensure your loved one maintains the human connection and social life that are crucial for overall well-being. Surrounded by staff and neighbors, they can sustain greater levels of social engagement.
The support and personalized care offered by this type of community renders it a place of comfort rather than loneliness, with an abundance of opportunities to maximize the physical, mental and emotional health of your loved one facing memory loss. Consider visiting a memory care community in your area, and think about whether this option might be a good fit.
To read more health and lifestyle articles related to seniors living with Alzheimer’s and dementia, check out our blog. For information on how The Springs of Vernon Hills Alzheimer’s Special Care Center provides the utmost in memory care and support for this community, contact us today.