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Loneliness and the Baby Boomer

April 2012 - Single baby boomers have a lonely old age ahead according to new statistics from Bowling Green State University's National Center for Family and Marriage Research (NCFMR).

Data from three decades worth of censuses and the 2009 round of the American Community Survey, analyzed by Dr. I-Fen Lin, associate professor of sociology, and Dr. Susan Brown, a professor of sociology and NCFMR co-director show that a third of people aged 45-63 are unmarried. This is 50% more than their equivalents in 1980, when only a fifth of middle-aged Americans were unmarried. Today, one in three single baby boomers have never been married.

According to I-Fen Lin:

"The shift in marital composition of the middle-aged suggests that researchers and policymakers can no longer focus on widowhood in later life and should pay attention to the vulnerabilities of the never-married and divorced as well."

Dr Brown says that 1 in 5 of single baby boomers live in poverty. This compares with 1 in 20 of married counterparts. Also, they are twice as likely to be disabled - but less likely to have health insurance. Divorced baby boomers, on the other hand, have both better economic resources and better health than widowed or never married counterparts. Never-married boomers are a particular concern because research shows that most of them will remain unmarried.

Susan Brown concludes:

"The economic and health vulnerabilities of single boomers are concerning because boomers are now moving into old age when failing health becomes even more common and severe. In the past, family members, particularly spouses, have provided care to infirm older adults. But a growing share of older adults aren't going to have a spouse available to rely on for support. Our figures indicate one in three boomers won't have a spouse who can care for them. And, unmarrieds are less likely to have children who might provide care. These shifting family patterns portend new strains on existing institutional supports for the elderly. As more singles enter older adulthood, we as a society may have to reconsider how we care for frail elders. The family may no longer be a viable option for an increasing segment of older adults."

Loneliness and Alzheimer's

A study by researchers at the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center, in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2007 found that lonely people may be twice as likely to develop the type of dementia linked to Alzheimer's disease.

Researchers acknowledge previous studies showing a link between social isolation and increased risk of dementia and decline in cognitive functioning. However, the current study sheds new light on the effects of emotional isolation (or feeling alone) and pays tribute to "the remarkable dedication and altruism" of the volunteers who participated.

Robert S. Wilson, PhD, and colleagues analyzed the association between loneliness and Alzheimer's disease in 823 older adults over a four year period. Participants underwent evaluations including assessments of loneliness, classifications of dementia and Alzheimer's disease, and testing of thinking, learning and memory abilities. Loneliness was measured on a scale of one to five, the score increasing with the degree experienced.

Participants' average loneliness score was 2.3 at first examination. Over the course of the study, 76 individuals developed dementia that met criteria for Alzheimer's disease. Researchers found that the risk for developing Alzheimer's disease increased by approximately 51 per cent for each point scored on the loneliness scale. A person with a high score (3.2) had about 2.1 times greater risk of developing Alzheimer's disease than a person with a low score (1.4). The findings did not change significantly when social isolation indicators, such as a small network and infrequent social activities, were taken into account.

The study concluded that loneliness is a risk factor, not an early sign of Alzheimer's disease. Autopsies performed on 90 individuals who died during the study found no relationship between loneliness and typical brain changes associated with Alzheimer's disease, including nerve plaques and tangles, or tissue damaged by lack of blood flow.

Robert Wilson commented:

"Humans are very social creatures. We need healthy interactions with others to maintain our health. The results of our study suggest that people who are persistently lonely may be more vulnerable to the deleterious effects of age-related neuropathology."

Researchers call for more investigation into how negative emotions cause changes in the brain.

Robert Wilson added:

"If loneliness is causing changes in the brain, it is quite possible that medications or changes in behavior could lessen the effects of these negative emotions and reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease."

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