August 4, 2015

Alzheimer’s Conference Update: The Negative Impact of Inactivity, TV Watching, and Loneliness on Seniors’ Cognition

The results of two studies presented last month at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Washington, DC showed that inactivity, heavy TV watching, and loneliness raise one’s risk of developing dementia later in life. A July 20 article in The Washington Post reported the findings.

Inactivity, TV, and Dementia
Scientists at the Northern California Institute for Research and Education examined the physical activity and TV viewing habits of 3,247 adults who were 18 to 30 years when the study – known as the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) -- began.

For the next 25 years, the researchers assessed their subjects’ exercise and TV habits three different times via questionnaires the participants completed.

For the purposes of the study, the California team defined low physical activity as “burning fewer than 300 calories in a 50-minute session three times a week.”

The researchers defined heavy TV watching as four or more hours a day.

If subjects met or exceeded those thresholds on two of the three follow-up sessions, they were considered to have long-term patterns of low activity levels or high TV watching. At the end of the 25-year assessment, 17 percent of all subjects fell into the low physical activity category, 11 percent were considered heavy TV viewers, and three percent fell into both categories.

Kristine Yaffe, a professor of psychiatry, neurology and epidemiology at the University of California in San Francisco, presented the conclusions at the Alzheimer’s conference. Among those results:
  • "Excessive" TV viewers were 1.5 more likely to perform worse on cognitive tests at midlife (ages 43-55, at the end of the study period) than participants who watched less television.
  • That three percent who exercised little AND watched lots of TV were two times more likely to perform poorly on cognitive tests at midlife than were those who exercised properly and watched little TV.

Yaffe said, “What’s happening at one’s midlife is setting the stage for what’s happening over the next 20 or 30 years.” She then mentioned that less than half the nation now meets recommended exercise standards.

Yaffe was quick to add that her team’s research also carried an upbeat message. A simple lifestyle change – more exercise, less TV – is likely to lower the risk of developing dementia later in life. “There is something you can do about it,” she said.

Loneliness and Dementia
Another study presented at the conference established a relationship between loneliness and dementia.

A team from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School tracked 8,311 adults in the U.S. Health and Retirement Study from 1998 to 2010. Those subjects -- all aged 65+ -- completed questionnaires every other year to describe perceptions of their own loneliness.

The team examined their subjects’ cognitive performance, factoring in information about their health, socio-demographic status, and social network characteristics.

About 17 percent of the seniors – one in six – fell into the “most lonely” category. These individuals experienced the most rapid decline in cognitive performance. The test scores for these loneliest subjects fell 20 percent faster than they did for people who didn’t report feeling lonely.

Team leader and psychiastrist Nancy J. Donovan emphasized the importance of addressing social isolation of seniors:
First, loneliness is a form of suffering in older people that is prevalent but undetected and untreated in medical practice. Second, loneliness has consequences. Our work shows that loneliness, like depression, is associated with accelerated cognitive decline in older Americans. This finding is important because it opens up new approaches for preventing and treating Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

About five million Americans now live with AD. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, that number will hit about 28 million by 2050.

Projections for AD’s impact on our healthcare system are frightening. Estimates suggest that the cost of care for AD patients in 2020 will represent about 2.1 percent of all Medicare funding. By 2040, the Alzheimer’s Association projects that AD care will gobble up a whopping 24 percent of all Medicare funding.

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Last week, I wrote about my hope to age in place, here in the house and neighborhood I’ve loved for half a century. I also wrote about the potential consequences of that choice – isolation and loneliness -- for millions of seniors.

As Baby Boomers slide into their senior years, and as life expectancy continues to rise, one has to ask: Is America heading toward an epidemic of elder loneliness and a corresponding impact on elder cognition?

About 90 percent of people 65+ report a preference for aging in place. A majority of them will be doing just that… alone.

According to the 2012 U.S. Census, about one third of all Americans are already single… perfectly positioned to become elderly orphans – potentially isolated and lonely – as they get older. 


Michael P said...

I am glad you posted this article about television. My own grandmother has dementia and before she moved into assisted living apartments, she sat all day alone watching television until one of us would visit after work. She often says how she wishes the Lord would just take her to heaven. But now that she is with other people, and has other activities going on, it's much better for her. I think this blog is very interesting and helpful. Thank you.

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