Promoting brain health: a spotlight on loneliness in men
November marks Men’s Health Awareness Month, highlighting men’s health issues, from cancers affecting men to mental health. Having a good social network is associated with improved mental health and a reduction in the risk of a number of conditions in later life, including dementia.1,2 However, studies have suggested that men in particular may face challenges with loneliness, which can affect their well-being and, potentially, their future brain health.
Studies have suggested that men often have fewer friends than women, meaning that they have fewer people to spend time with.3,4 These studies also found that men’s friendships are often less emotionally close than women’s.3,4 Compared with women, when men spend time together, they are more likely to do an activity and less likely to discuss their feelings.3,4 Men’s relationships may be further affected by their reduced emotional closeness, which could have an impact on how regularly contact is maintained.4 The gender gap in sharing feelings and forming emotional bonds often begins early in life, owing to traditional ideas of masculinity, which emphasize toughness and self-reliance.2-4
All these factors can leave men at risk of loneliness and could affect their social networks throughout life. Research from the International Longevity Centre, UK, suggested that 2 million men aged 50 years or older experience a moderate to high degree of social isolation, with 700 000 men experiencing a high degree of loneliness.5 In this group, men aged 80 years or older were the loneliest, with 12% reaching the highest loneliness scores, compared with 6.8% of those in the 65–79-years age group and 8.2% of those in the 50–64-years age group.5 Furthermore, this study suggested that men aged 50 years or older are more isolated than women of the same age and that they have less contact with friends and family.5 By 2030, owing to demographic changes, there are likely to be 1.5 million men aged 50 years or older living alone, which is a rise of 65% from two decades earlier.5 These data suggest that loneliness, particularly in men, needs to be addressed urgently to improve well-being and protect future brain health.
Our policy report ‘Time matters: a call to prioritize brain health’ details the need for public health communication surrounding dementia risk reduction.6 A primary prevention method for the condition is making lifestyle changes to minimize certain dementia risk factors that are modifiable, one of which is social isolation.
Guidance from the World Health Organization has recommendations for dementia risk reduction.7 These could be tailored further for men who are at risk of loneliness and, therefore, at an increased risk of dementia.8 The relevant recommendations are listed below.
- Increasing physical activity. Keeping physically active is good for brain health.6 Physical activity could be undertaken, for instance, through a sport team, walking club or exercise class. Any of these could also help men to form new social connections.
- Maintaining cognitive activities. Keeping your mind active is good for brain health.6 Support received through employment, volunteer activities and other organizations could help men to build social relationships. Joining hobby groups, with people who have shared interests, could also help.
- Minimizing depression. Creating a safe environment for men to share their feelings, providing support when needed and challenging ideas of masculinity may help men to build emotional closeness in their relationships. This could lower the incidence of depression and loneliness in men.
- Increasing social activity. Along with the above recommendations, keeping in touch with friends and family, spending quality time with people and having social connections day to day may help to reduce loneliness in men and improve their future brain health.
One organization that aims to reduce loneliness in older people and that encapsulates all of these recommendations for dementia risk reduction are ‘Men in Sheds’, supported by Age UK. They offer a community space where older people can bring together their skills and experience to build and create craft and technical projects. Paul Hulbert (aged 72 years) shared that he most enjoys the shed owing to the “company, friendship and meeting new people” and that, in these friendships, people feel able to “talk about their issues, including health challenges and depression”. Sheds help people to maintain physical, cognitive and social activities, and to build relationships in which feelings can be shared; therefore, they, and similar organizations, could be an important approach for improving well-being, tackling loneliness and reducing dementia risk.
On Men’s Health Awareness Month, and every month, awareness of loneliness in men and steps to tackle it should be undertaken. Talk to the men in your life, check in with them regularly and look out for the signs of social isolation. Lowering the risk of loneliness may also lower the risk of dementia and prioritize brain health, which is one of the core aims of Think Brain Health Global.
If you, or someone close to you, would like further information about loneliness in men or support with this issue, the sites below could help.
- Freak-Poli R, Wagemaker N, Wang R et al. Loneliness, not social support, is associated with cognitive decline and dementia across two longitudinal population-based cohorts. J Alzheimers Dis 2022;85:295–308.
- Taylor I. How loneliness is killing men. BBC Science Focus, 2022. Available from: www.sciencefocus.com/science/how-loneliness-is-killing-men (Accessed 15 November 2022).
- Campaign to End Loneliness. Gender and loneliness. 2022. Available from: www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/frequently-asked-questions/gender-and-loneliness (Accessed 15 November 2022).
- Roberts SB, Dunbar RI. Managing relationship decay: network, gender, and contextual effects. Hum Nat 2015;26:426–50.
- Independent Age Advice and Support for Older Age. Isolation: the emerging crisis for older men. 2013. Available from: www.independentage.org/sites/default/files/2016-05/isolation-the-emerging-crisis-for-older-men-report.pdf (Accessed 24 November 2022).
- Think Brain Health Global. Time matters: a call to prioritize brain health. 2019. Available from: www.thinkbrainhealth.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Think-Brain-Health-report-2020.pdf (Accessed 24 November 2022).
- World Health Organization. Global action plan on the public health response to dementia 2017–2025. 2017. Available from: www.who.int/publications/i/item/global-action-plan-on-the-public-health-response-to-dementia-2017—2025 (Accessed 24 November 2022).
- Livingston G, Huntley J, Sommerlad A et al. Dementia prevention, intervention, and care: 2020 report of the Lancet Commission. Lancet 2020;396:413–46.