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EconomicsOff Campus

Loneliness – Dementia’s breeding ground 

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Loneliness – one of the pandemic’s many symptoms. Its price for our welfare states will be high, if not addressed with great vigilance.  

A new study from the US has found that the rise of social isolation may be more menacing than previously anticipated. From the current state of emergency to the notion of intergenerational solidarity, this article sheds light on the price of loneliness and why its remedy may lie in cash payments. 

Loneliness – one of the pandemic’s many insidious symptoms. From university students finding themselves isolated in dorms, to the elderly being torn apart from their beloved ones – the psychological devastation prompted by Covid-19 has left deep scars on the entirety of society. A recent study conducted in the US has found that the rise of social isolation may be more menacing than previously anticipated.   

New empirical evidence, published on February 7th, 2022, in the scientific journal Neurology, suggests that there exists a plausible correlation between loneliness and dementia. Americans under the age of 80 with a low risk of developing this disease, considering age and genetic disposition, are at a threefold increased risk of suffering from dementia if exposed to loneliness and social isolation. 

Looming loneliness  

For the future of generation Z, this observation appears to be quite concerning, being the generation that is most prone to loneliness. With social media as an intrinsic part of our generation’s life, researchers have vainly been cautioning against its adverse impacts on mental health. That the pandemic exacerbated this tendency is surely not a novelty. 

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But this does not presage an inevitable doom. As the authors of the study contended, despite the rising prevalence of loneliness, the latter is “a risk factor for increased morbidity and mortality [that] can reduced”, as “fortunately, loneliness [unlike dementia] can be cured.” And it ought to be.  

Dementia is not only lethal, but also costly 

In 2021, over 55 million people lived with dementia globally, excluding the non-diagnosed who are most prevalent in middle- and low-income countries. Projections estimate that by 2050, the number of patients suffering from dementia will more than double, to 131.5 million, accelerated by global demographic transitions towards more elderly societies.  

To illustrate the magnitude of the problem: besides now being the 7th leading cause of mortality globally, dementia also bears a substantial economic cost. As one of the costliest diseases, its estimated financial burden on the world economy in 2015 was approximately US $818 billion. This would make the global cost of dementia be amongst today’s 20th largest economies, measured by GDP.  

Further, since most patients are being taken care of by family members and unpaid caregivers, the myriads of Alzheimer’s diagnoses in recent years have plunged many patients’ social environments into financial uncertainty and precariousness. Hence, in the absence of a cure for dementia, advancing preventive care for the elderly has revealed itself to be essential. 

For intergenerational solidarity, cash is key 

Of course, these new findings have many implications for policymakers. In face of the rising concerns about demographic changes, policies designed to incentivise informal care have already gained salience. In many European countries, informal care now constitutes an indispensable share of total long-term care (LTC) provision, ranging at approximately 80% of the total resources provided by the state – not least as pressures to contain social welfare costs rise.  

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In the past two decades, many member states of the EU have resorted to cash payments for those in need of LTC. Scholars have observed that so-called “cash for care schemes” serve as a tool not only to formalise the hitherto unpaid care by family members, but also to reinforce “intergenerational and intra-generational familial obligations.” Distinguishing between formal and informal care, that is, professionals and family members, has become obsolete – as there is now a broad scientific consensus on the health benefits arising from emotional and social support. “If we want to prioritize brain health, we can’t ignore the role of psychosocial factors like loneliness,” posited Dr. Salinas, Department of Neurology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. 

To acknowledge and be acknowledged 

Hence, while policymakers are assigned to ensure adequate regulation for carers employment and the quality of informal care, these findings also place a great burden of responsibility on young generations. Amid the pandemic questions related to inter- and intragenerational solidarity have resurfaced in public debate as the virus relentlessly laid bare the pertinence of social obligations. And as Covid-19 has tragically demonstrated, addressing them begins with individuals assuming their responsibilities. “Sometimes,” Dr. Salinas argued, “the best way to take care of ourselves and [others] is simply to regularly reach out and check in—to acknowledge and be acknowledged.” And if the very idea of encountering the other with recognition and dignity is a veritable breeding ground for public health, so it is for public virtue too.  

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