Loneliness linked to increased risk of developing Parkinson’s

Researchers followed almost half a million people for 15 years and found a potential link between feelings of loneliness and a greater risk of Parkinson’s.

Loneliness is when someone feels alone, isolated, or disconnected. Anyone, of any age, can feel lonely, even if they have social contact and support from others. It’s a common feeling, but it can be distressing.

In 2022, around 1 in 4 people in the UK said they often or always felt lonely, according to the Campaign to End Loneliness.

Research has shown that loneliness may have an impact on our health and wellbeing. But the link with Parkinson’s is unclear. In this new study, researchers at Florida State University explored whether loneliness could be linked to Parkinson’s.

What did the researchers do?

The research team studied data from the UK Biobank, a large database with genetic and health information from half a million people in the UK. The researchers followed 491,603 people aged between 38 and 73 over a period of 15 years.

Between 2006 and 2021, participants filled in surveys including answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question “Do you often feel lonely?”. Over 90,000 participants reported feeling lonely.

During the study period, 2,822 people were diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Researchers found that these people were more likely to have reported feeling lonely.

The research team accounted for a number of different variables, including demographic and socioeconomic factors, social isolation, smoking, physical activity, and depression to assess whether other factors were at play. In all cases, loneliness was still linked with an increased risk of Parkinson’s. The relationship was the same in men and women, and across all age groups.

Read more about the research on the JAMA Neurology website.

What does this mean?

This finding builds on evidence suggesting that loneliness may be linked to an increased risk of neurodegenerative conditions (conditions that cause problems in the brain and get worse over time). Previous research has identified loneliness as a risk factor for both Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Professor David Dexter, Director of Research at Parkinson’s UK, said:

"These findings are interesting but additional research is now needed to further investigate the possible association between loneliness and Parkinson’s, and to understand why the two might be linked.

"One alternative explanation may be that loneliness in some people may be an early sign of Parkinson's. This is because the areas of the brain connected with loneliness can be affected in Parkinson’s before the brain areas which control movement."