Research has shown isolation and loneliness are associated with increased sympathetic nervous system activity. According to MedicineNet, sympathetic nervous system is “a part of the nervous system that serves to accelerate the heart rate, constrict blood vessels, and raise blood pressure. The sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system constitute the autonomic nervous system”. M’ok. What we are really talking about is loneliness and isolation causes our bodies to go into the fight or flight response as if we are being chased by a lion on the Serengeti or when you see that copperhead snake that keeps slithering into your yard and scares the snot out of you when all you are trying to do is get to your car… I digress. That feeling, of either running away or ready to kill the copperhead, is our fight or flight response, or our sympathetic nervous system, at work. What happens? We see that copperhead and our heart races, we get a quick boost of energy, we start breathing faster, among other biological responses, from the quick release of hormones. All of that is normal and absolutely necessary. After the copperhead goes back to his own house and all is right with the world, our parasympathetic nervous system calms our bodies back down. Those hormones we released when we saw the copperhead, if elevated for too long, as with isolation and loneliness, will damage blood vessels, increase blood pressure, and cause a build up of fat. Unfortunately, our brains also get stressed out from the consistent release of these hormones and this can create anxiety and depression. This is one of the reasons staying active and social is vital to our health. Silver Station is a great way to stop our bodies and brains from reacting as if a copperhead is constantly visiting us.
Research has shown people who are isolated have a higher risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. Let’s talk about dementia and Alzheimer’s for a minute. Occasionally, I hear those two terms used interchangeably and they really shouldn’t be. Let’s start with my favorite part: Definitions! According to good ol’ Merriam-Webster:
Dementia is usually a progressive condition marked by the development of memory impairment, difficulty understanding speech and/or speaking, and the inability to plan or initiate complex behaviors.
Alzheimer’s Disease is a brain disease “that results in progressive memory loss, impaired thinking, disorientation, and changes in personality and mood.”
By these definitions, dementia is the symptom and Alzheimer’s is the disease. Just like not all cookies are chocolate chip cookies and not all cars are Ferraris. I realize for those caring for or living with Alzheimer’s or dementia, you know the difference and the horrors of each and I am not making light of either with my examples but merely trying to explain the differences.
Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia but not the only culprit. Other common causes of dementia include Vascular Dementia, Dementia with Lewy Bodies, and Frontotemporal Dementia which affects personality and speech but not memory. There are many other causes of dementia that are not as common as those mentioned.
What we are talking about are the affects of isolation on the brain. Socialization, belonging, and support may not prevent these horrible diseases but they can definitely decrease the risks.
For more information, please go to the experts at the Alzheimer’s Association at www.Alz.org or if you are in the Bluffton/Hilton Head area, Memory Matters on the Island is an amazing resource and program.
We are talking about cognitive decline. As we age, our brains change. It’s a fact of life. It happens to everyone. Our brain slows down and there is a difference in our ability to remember things from when we were younger to now. This is the definition of cognitive decline, which is completely different than cognitive impairment. There is a study that explains this cognitive decline as the brain having a finite amount of space in which to fill and our brains just get pickier about the information it chooses to retain. I like that one. I feel as if there are things I forget but it isn’t because I didn’t remember, it’s because I just didn’t care enough to clutter my finite amount of brain space. Solid thinking, Brain! On the flip side, our knowledge and verbal skills remain strong and some, like myself, would argue get stronger with age. Experiences build upon our knowledge base and, hence my argument, gives us more knowledge. Older people have a lot of knowledge. Ask them! They will tell you! If we build on our discussion on socializing and being connected, research shows older people who socialize have increased cognitive brain function, reduce their risk of dementia, and reduce the rate of cognitive decline. All good news for those that engage in social activities, have good friends, and go to Silver Station! Absolutely shameless, I fully admit. But true, nonetheless.
When I talk about Silver Station to literally anyone who is willing listen to me, and some who probably aren’t really willing but are too polite to stop me, I talk a lot about loneliness and socialization and how vital it is to have a place for people to meet, socialize, to be engaged and supported, especially as we age. I generally then go on and on about how Bluffton is missing that vital piece of community and explain the true and real dangers, as well as inflictions, that can arise without that piece. To explain how vital this piece is, lets start by defining, according to Webster, what we are talking about:
Loneliness is being without company or cut off from others.
Socialization is social interaction with others.
Both are simple enough. What happens to our bodies and spirit during loneliness, and in the absence of socialization, is not as simple.
In articles to follow, I will try to simplify exactly what happens in both circumstances and how Silver Station can help. I will explain exactly what we are talking about.