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The Impact of Perceived Social Isolation on Cognitive Functioning

What is Perceived Social Isolation?

Perceived social isolation, more commonly known as loneliness is more closely related to the quality than quantity of social interactions.(1) This was earlier characterized as “chronic distress without redeeming features.”(2) It is not just a feeling of being alone but also a psychological phase in an individual’s life that can critically affect their mental well-being. Perceived social isolation or loneliness can also have a significant impact on our cognitive functioning.

Is There a Link Between Perceived Social Isolation and Cognitive Functioning?

Studies That Portray the Link Between Perceived Social Isolation and Cognitive Functioning

According to a national survey of 2018 conducted by Cigna, loneliness or perceived social isolation has reached its peak height, with around half of 20, 000 adults in the U.S. reporting they feel alone sometimes or every time.(3)

A review of the effects of perceived social isolation or loneliness across the lifespan has demonstrated that loneliness can create chaos in people’s physical, mental, as well as cognitive health.(4)

Studies on Perceived Social Isolation and Cognitive Decline: Based on Age!

Studies on elderly people have shown that they are more susceptible to becoming isolated, and loneliness or perceived social isolation affects about 12% to 40% of people who are 65 years old or above.(5) The incidence of cognitive decline, dementia, and memory impairment is higher among elderly people who report feeling lonely or experiencing perceived social isolation. In contrast, individuals with a fair social circle tend to be more resilient to the processes that impact neurobiological function.

Many other studies have discovered that loneliness and social isolation are major risk factors for cognitive decline.(6, 7, 8) As studies have shown an increased loneliness causes a cognitive decline, this reduction in cognitive performance further strengthens future loneliness, thus emphasizing a bidirectional casual interaction.(9, 10)

Studies on Perceived Social Isolation and Cognitive Decline: Beyond Age!

Beyond age, gender or sex acts as a major predictor for the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.(11) For instance, data from the Framingham study was used for estimating the ‘remaining lifetime risk’ of developing Alzheimer’s disease among people who were 65 years old and found a nearly two-fold risk among females (12%) relative to males (6.3%)(12)

However, it must be noted that although elderly females reported feelings of loneliness more frequently, the impact of loneliness or perceived social isolation on cognitive impairment was significant among older males and not females.

Various Ways to Determine the Link Between Perceived Social Isolation and Cognitive Functioning

Some ways in which perceived social isolation is linked with cognitive functioning are:

Problems With Memory

Perceived social isolation or loneliness is associated with memory problems, especially in elderly people. This can affect, both short-term and long-term memory in the affected individuals, which can ultimately make it difficult for them to recall events and information.

Some studies have even reported a link between loneliness or perceived social isolation and dementia or poor cognition and memory.(13, 14)

Cognitive Decline

Some research has reported that perceived social isolation or prolonged loneliness could be linked with a higher risk of cognitive decline or poor cognition, and the occurrence of dementia in elderly persons.(13, 14) Although the mechanisms behind this link are not clearly understood, chronic stress is thought to play a crucial role in this. Loneliness or perceived social isolation can be a major source of acute and chronic stress.(15)

Difficulties With Attention

People with perceived social isolation can find it difficult to maintain focus and attention because when they feel socially isolated or lonely, they might be more prone to several distractions, which can ultimately be a challenging task to concentrate on their work.

Impaired Executive Function

Perceived social isolation is also linked with impaired executive functions like problem-solving, or decision-making skills. Since people with perceived social isolation find it challenging to concentrate, they also find it hard to make proper decisions and effectively manage their tasks.

Emotional Regulation

People with perceived social isolation also struggle with their emotions. This affects emotional regulation in people, thus causing an increased stress level, symptoms of anxiety, and depression.(16, 17, 18) Studies have shown loneliness or perceived social isolation has negative impacts on mental health.(19) In addition to this, such emotional states can also interfere with memory and attention, which can ultimately impact cognitive functioning.              

Tips to Prevent Perceived Social Isolation

Follow the tips mentioned below to prevent you from feeling lonely or experiencing perceived social isolation.

  • Get comfortable in being alone. Remember, “There is no best friend for you, better than you!”
  • Choose some fulfilling and relaxing activities to bring a boost to your mood.
  • Make time for exercise and remain healthy, physically and mentally. Exercise positively impacts mental health.
  • Enjoy time outdoors. Sunlight and nature are quite essential for our body and help in improving mood.
  • Try to connect with at least one or two people outside and gradually grow your social circle. However, if you do not feel comfortable with social interactions, do not force yourself, rather seek medical or expert advice.

When to See a  Doctor?

You should see a mental health professional in case:

  • You experience low mood or feelings of depression and anxiety.
  • If feeling lonely is making it hard for you to do things that you should.
  • If your physical health issues do not go away even after a few weeks or if they affect your daily life.

Final Words

Perceived social isolation, or loneliness is not just a feeling, but a psychological state in a person’s life that can impact their overall mental well-being if not treated well. It is linked with cognitive functioning and can vary from one person to the other. Trying to improve the condition of perceived social isolation can help in improving cognitive functioning and overall mental health. Seek out medical assistance whenever essential.


Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:October 16, 2023

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