In the age of the internet, it seems impossible that 13 per cent of Canadians live with chronic loneliness. Conversation and connection are never more than a click away, yet persistent loneliness affects both young and old.

Research shows loneliness is affecting our neurological health. A recent study by Antonio Terracciano, a professor in the department of geriatrics at Florida State University, found people experiencing persistent loneliness have a 37 per cent higher risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases (i.e. dementia, Azhiemer’s) after about 15 years. 

More than half of health care professionals surveyed for A Dementia Strategy for Canada identified social isolation as one of the three most important risk factors for developing dementia. It was followed by physical inactivity and depression. 

Currently more than 600 000 Canadians are living with dementia. The Alzheimer’s Society is predicting up to a 65 per cent increase in diagnoses from 2020 to 2030. 

The Loneliest Group

Many people assume that the loneliest group of people are older adults, but they’re actually the third loneliest age in Canada; 14 per cent reported feeling lonely sometimes or always. The most lonely group in Canada are 15-34 year-olds.

Loneliness isn’t linear, it ebbs and flows as we grow. It’s important to create connections in all stages of life, not just seniority.

Simply being alone versus feeling lonely changes with age. Examining this change, researchers report that older adults have usually pruned their friendships over time, keeping only the most meaningful ones. These close bonds can reliably reduce loneliness.

Meanwhile younger adults may be socializing for a variety of reasons and can often have a high friend turnover rate. This lack of true, deep connections can increase a person’s feelings of loneliness, even if they are constantly surrounded by others. 

Loneliness and the Risk of Neurological Disease

Humans are social beings and our brain health could rely on social connection.

One review found that not only can social inactivity deteriorate mental functioning, but as a person develops a neurological disease like dementia, they often have less of a social life. This creates a feedback cycle for increased isolation and loneliness.

But don’t lose hope; everyone feels lonely from time to time, Terraciano said. He predicts that the risk of mental decline only rises with excessive and prolonged feelings of loneliness. 

He said that as a society, we need to focus on creating more meaningful connections in our lives to curb mental decline. 

Ongoing Research

Green Space for Peace of Mind

Interestingly, you don’t need a conversation to stave off isolation. Parks and leisure activities offer more opportunity to socialize with other people in your community and a sense of belonging. 

30 per cent of Canadians aged 12 and older did not feel a sense of belonging in their community in 2020. Feeling a sense of belonging with your neighbours can be difficult, especially for younger adults.

University students, for example, often move year to year and don’t plan on staying in one place for long. Potentially without significant others or living far away from friends, it’s challenging to create social connection in a temporary setting.

But even just the connection with nature can increase your sense of belonging and connectedness to the earth. 

Check out The Health Insiders article on Ecotherapy to learn more about the benefits of nature!

Companion Animals

If you’ve ever hugged a dog while crying, you’ll understand the emotional support and peace of mind a pet can bring. According to a study, one of the most effective ways to reduce persistent loneliness is animal therapy. Especially for people with social anxiety.

I often feel lucky that my university housemate brought her cat to live with us. Having started university during the pandemic, I didn’t make many deep connections my first year. Hearing the cat purring, curled up beside me made nights at home by myself less lonely. 

But here’s where it gets interesting: your ‘animal’ could be a robot. While the technology isn’t flawless, there are many robotic cats, dogs, birds, and more for sale as companions. They’re supposed to feel, sound, and move like the real thing. Some robot pets even have heart beats. 

Watch the City News video below to see how lifelike these animatronics can be.

Robotic pets are perfect for people in assisted living, those with mobility issues, allergies, or compromised immune systems. To top it off, robots won’t rack up vet bills, don’t need to be housebroken, walked or fed and there’s no litter box to clean!

They can be a good companion during a move or a major life change. Starting university in a new city (dorms don’t allow pets, but they do allow robots!), moving to a new province or home are stressful situations where you may lose connection with friends.

Currently, robotic animals are most commonly used for increasing social interaction in dementia care as demonstrated in the video above. Pets can help facilitate conversation, be part of their social network, and offer physical connection, according to a study on Dementia.

Group Meetings Offer Increased Connectivity

Joining online therapy/discussion groups can be a helpful tool for socialization. Researchers Stav Shapira et al. found that the connections to other older adults was necessary to alleviate loneliness.

While the therapy itself was helpful, the social aspect of group therapy may yield the most benefits.

Shapira references a study on Cognitive Stimulation Therapy (CST), an intervention often provided to people with dementia. 

Usually a two week intervention, CST involves participating in standard tasks that focus on cognitive function. Difficulty of the tasks is prescribed on an individual basis. 

Research suggests that CST can also be used as a preventative measure for people with normal cognition. Essentially, the therapy is meant to enhance brain functioning and social functioning through training, which can slow the onset of mental decline. 

Social support is essential to mental health. Emphasizing creating meaningful friendships and finding strategies that work for you can help maintain brain health over the years.

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