Research suggests isolation compounds dangers for older adults with compromised cognitive abilities
As continuing quarantines, lockdowns, and social-distancing rules strain relationships and raise stress levels, new research suggests that the ongoing epidemic of isolation could prove especially harmful for already-vulnerable seniors.
The study, titled The Relation of Loneliness and Cognition With Financial and Healthcare Decision Making in Older Persons, was conducted by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation in partnership with the India University School of Medicine and the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center. It draws on data from more than 1,000 older American adults participating in the Memory and Aging Project spearheaded by the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center.
“While there is considerable research on the detrimental effects of cognitive decline on decision making, these novel findings show that loneliness also contributes to poor decision making among cognitively vulnerable older adults,” Gerri Walsh, president of the FINRA Foundation, said in a statement.
Among other tests, participants were asked to complete a 12-item exam that captured the types of financial and healthcare decisions older adults face in their daily life. The ones who found it hard to perform routine cognitive functions such as remembering, paying attention, and solving problems had a tendency to score lower and decision-making, and loneliness led to even worse decision-making among individuals who showed low cognition.
“Lonely and cognitively vulnerable older adults may have difficulty with complex decisions, such as choosing retirement funds and prescription drug benefit plans and other life-altering decisions we face as we age,” Walsh said.
The link between loneliness and poor decision-making could be caused by reductions in brain health, which a growing body of evidence suggests could result from isolation. Another possibility, according to the authors of the study, could be that loneliness increases people’s tendency to rely on intuition rather than analytic reasoning, which could compound the significant risk of poor financial decision-making due to poor cognition.
The study also found that more depressive symptoms, the presence of multiple medical conditions, being more advanced in age, lower education, lower income, and fewer social contacts were associated with worse decision making.
“This study was conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the authors noted. “[A]lthough loneliness was common among older adults prior to the pandemic, given the ongoing need to social distance, we suspect that our findings currently apply to an even broader swath of seniors.”