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New ADAPT Lab publication: Living alone and incident dementia

New Alzheimer’s Society funded meta-analysis published by ADAPT Lab at UCL shows that older people who live alone are 30% more likely to develop dementia than those who live with others. You can access the full article here.

We pooled together evidence from 21,666 people across 12 studies which tested the longitudinal association between living alone and risk of dementia.

The results showed that living alone was significantly associated with increased risk of developing dementia over a period of 3-16 years.

This study doesn’t explain why living alone is a risk factor for dementia. Lead author and ADAPT Lab research fellow, Dr Roopal Desai, believes that there are several plausible explanations. Dr Desai said:

“It might be because people who live alone experience more loneliness or more stress, both of which can have adverse physical health effects, or it may be due to a lack of cognitive stimulation which is needed to maintain neural connections.”

This research shows that if living alone could be eliminated entirely, then dementia cases could be reduced by 8.9%. This suggests that social isolation could be a larger contributor to dementia risk across the population than previously believed. Study senior author, Dr Georgina Charlesworth, said:

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, self-isolating has been vital to reduce the spread of the virus. The pandemic has raised awareness of how difficult it can be, practically and emotionally, to live alone when it has not been our choice to do so. Finding ways to keep cognitively, socially and physically active is important for our wellbeing, and to reduce dementia risk. Strategies such as social prescribing, where health professionals refer people to community groups, have been disrupted in recent months, with increasing reliance on activities delivered over the internet.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), there were around 9 million people aged 70+ living in the UK in 2019. ONS statistics show that a third of this age group (3.2 million) were living alone at this time, an increase of over a fifth (21.4%) in the past 20 years.

Fiona Carragher, Director of Research and Influencing at Alzheimer’s Society said:

“At a time where people have been socially isolated during the pandemic, this research, funded by Alzheimer’s Society brings this potential risk into sharper focus. Research like this is critical to understanding how we may be able to reduce the risk of developing dementia later in life"

Caroline Abrahams of Age UK added:

"The last few months of lockdown and shielding have been particularly hard for older people, especially those who live on their own. We going to have to do a lot more to enable them to live safely and well among us. This is all the more true of people ageing with dementia."

Due to Covid-19, Alzheimer’s Society is anticipating a loss of up to £45 million this year. This will have a devastating effect on funding for research like this. "Research is the only way to beat dementia and it must not be an afterthought as we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic."

Alzheimer’s Society are calling for emergency financial support from the Government to continue their life-changing work. You can read more about this here.

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