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Research says being lonely shrinks brains and increases dementia risk

We might be out of lockdown, but social isolation hasn’t ended for everyone. Loneliness prevails across all generations – and science says it’s not so great for our brains.

At some point in our lives, we’ve all felt lonely.

Whether you moved to a new place, ended a close and valued relationship, or had a best friend move away for good – avoidance of this gut-wrenching feeling is one that causes people to amass large social circles and to fill their free time as much as possible.

Extended social isolation throughout the pandemic gave us all a glimpse into what it’s like to be lonely, despite sharing the experience of solitude with billions of others globally.

And although most countries have turned their backs on the prospect of lockdowns, bestowing upon us all our old freedoms – loneliness was at record highs before the pandemic and is still on the rise across all ages, especially when you ask Gen-Z.

Now, more than ever, we’re aware of how mental and physical health are interlinked. So what is loneliness doing to our bodies? More specifically, how does it affect our brain?


The inner workings of the brain have eluded scientists for centuries and figuring out what causes our brains to tick – or to stop ticking – is a topic always under consideration.

Today, many neuropsychologists subscribe to the ‘use it or lose it’ doctrine, implying that the less we use skills like language and other cognitive processes, the more likely they are to fade.

A study conducted by British and Chinese researchers has concluded that neurodegeneration is more likely to affect individuals who don’t regularly engage in conversations with others, such as family, friends, or colleagues.

Great news for people like me who never know when to shut up!

The study was conducted in 2019 and followed 462,619 people in the UK with an average age of 57. Participants were asked whether they lived with someone else, visited their family once a month, and whether they participated in social activities like clubs, meetings, or volunteering once a week.

If the answer was ‘no’ to two of these, the person was classified as socially isolated. A little harsh I think, considering tons of people live in a different country than their families for school or work, but we move.

After accounting for age, sex, socioeconomic status, drinking habits, smoking, and depression, the research indicated that those considered isolated were 26 percent more likely to be diagnosed with dementia.

In people with higher levels of social isolation, brain scans showed a lower grey matter volume in parts of the brain responsible for leaning and thinking. In short, their brains were shrinking.


Applying these findings to today, many scientists fear that levels of neurodegeneration amongst the public have been worsened by extended solo time during the pandemic.

But in the findings, the researchers admitted that (given the pre-pandemic nature of the study) they couldn’t discern whether virtual interactions via Zoom or Facetime could adequately replace socialising and quality time spent in person.

Considering we don’t need another thing to worry about these days, let’s assume spoken conversations of any kind can suffice to keep the wheels in our brain turning.

In that light, the good news is Gen-Z is known for being digital natives. And although they may feel lonely in their immediate social circles, it’s highly possible that interactions in places like Discord and during online gaming could help stop the brain shrink.

The research is definitely valid – I trust science! – but I’m not exactly a fan of professors using its findings to fearmonger people out of working from home, which is what some professors and charities are trying to do.

It’s obvious that humans are social creatures. Assuming most of us have had to isolate with a bout of the VID at least once in the last two years, we’ve witnessed how a lack of face-to-face interactions for 7-10 days can make life feel surreal – and not in a good way.

All in all, this research is evidence enough that we should all check in with our loved ones often. If you haven’t heard from someone in a while, give them a call and try to meet up.

It’ll help their brain health and yours.