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Lifebrain Monthly E-newsletter August 2020

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Loneliness may accelerate memory decline in advanced age

What is loneliness?

Can you be surrounded by people and at the same time feel lonely? It might be a surprise that the answer is yes. Loneliness is a subjective feeling related to dissatisfaction in the number of your social connections (friends, family, colleagues), as well as the quality of these relationships (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010). Being socially active can prevent you from feeling lonely, but loneliness is also very much linked to personality traits and self-perception. For instance, people with low self-esteem or being very shy are more at risk of feeling lonely (Russell, Peplau, & Cutrona, 1980); so are people often experiencing anxiety and worry (a trait known as neuroticism). 

Cultural differences in feeling lonely

Cultural differences can affect perceived loneliness. Northern and Western Europeans appear to tolerate greater rates of social isolation before reporting feeling lonely than Eastern and Southern Europeans. (Source: data from the European Social Survey). Varying access to social resources and healthcare also influences perceived loneliness making certain people more vulnerable to loneliness than others.

Source: Colourbox

Why is loneliness important for neuroscientists?

People feeling lonely are at risk for depression and anxiety, particularly at high ages (Singh and Misra, 2009). Loneliness is also associated with mortality due to increased cardiovascular disorders (Holt-Lunstad & Smith, 2016). Such association could be explained by poorer lifestyles in older adults feeling lonely. Moreover, loneliness has an impact on the brain. Several studies have shown that old and lonely people can experience a steeper decline in tasks assessing memory, attention and language (Shankar et al., 2013; Donovan et al., 2017).   

The Lifebrain study on loneliness

Loneliness is often a temporary feeling, but for some it may become chronic. In the Lifebrain consortium the University of Barcelona currently examines the effect of persistent loneliness on memory, among healthy adults above the age of 60. Preliminary results from the Swedish Betula study indicate that individuals with medium and high loneliness scores have a more pronounced memory decline (Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Green and blue lines represent volunteers with medium and high levels of loneliness across a 15-year follow-up. These groups have a more accelerated memory decline than participants with low loneliness.

In the German BASE-II study we observed that people feeling most lonely and at the same time worrying most, were the ones who underwent more pronounced memory decline with aging. The findings of these two European groups suggest that loneliness is associated with memory decline, particularly in people with high levels of neuroticism. 

Being connected with others and feeling that there are people “with you” and not just “around you” may have an important effect on well-being and brain health. Lifebrain researchers will continue to explore the repercussions of loneliness on cognition and brain structure.


Donovan NJ, Wu Q, Rentz DM, Sperling RA, Marshall GA, Glymour MM. Loneliness, depression and cognitive function in older U.S. adults. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 2017, 32, 564-73.

European Social Survey Data

Hawkley LC, Cacioppo JT. Loneliness matters: a theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms. Annals of Behavioural Medicine. 2010, 40, 218-27.

Holt-Lunstad J and Smith TB. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for CVD: implications for evidence based patient care and scientific inquiry. Heart. 2016, 102, 987–9.

Russell D, Peplau LA & Cutrona CE. The revised UCLA Loneliness Scale: Concurrent and discriminant validity evidence.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1980, 39, 472–80.

Shankar A, Hamer M, McMunn A, Steptoe A. Social isolation and loneliness: relationships with cognitive function during 4 years of follow-up in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2013, 75, 161–70.

Singh A, Misra N. Loneliness, depression and sociability in old age. Industrial Psychiatry Journal. 2009, 18, 51-5.


Source of newsletter

This newsletter was edited by Cristina Solé-Padullés, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Barcelona (UB). This study is being conducted by Dídac Macià Bros (postdoctoral researcher and Professor at the UB), David Bartrés-Faz (Principal Investigator and Full Professor at the UB) and Cristina Solé-Padullés.


Your comments are always valuable to us, so do not hesitate to contact us.

Center for Lifespan Changes in Brain and Cognition at the University of Oslo
Kristine B. Walhovd project coordinator
Barbara B. Friedman administrative coordinator
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This project has received funding from the European Union ’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 732592.
Copyright © 2020 Lifebrain Horizon2020 project, All rights reserved.

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