A neurologist talks about loneliness

Loneliness doesn’t always lead to Parkinson’s disease, Dr. Nina Browner said, but it has other negative effects that we can fight.

Carolina Blue graphic reading

This past October, the Journal of the Academic Medical Association published a research article linking feeling lonely to a possibility of future development of Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that can cause shaking, tightness of muscles, slowness of movements and other symptoms.

This observational study found that over time many individuals who said they were lonely wound up being diagnosed with Parkinson’s later in life.

Dr. Nina Browner, Bryson Distinguished Professor of Neurology and Chief of Movement Disorders in the UNC School of Medicine, found the study fascinating but a bit too broad. “I would be reluctant to make a broad statement such as ‘because of that one study, you can expect loneliness to lead to Parkinson’s,’” said Browner, who works with Parkinson’s patients in her research.

While loneliness doesn’t always lead to a Parkinson’s diagnosis, it can have a negative impact on anyone. In a recent interview, Browner talked about how a lack of communal activity affects people with Parkinson’s and shares tips for anyone trying to avoid loneliness during the dark days of winter.

How does loneliness affect those diagnosed with Parkinson’s?

Anxiety about being able to cope with the realities of a neurodegenerative condition that will continue to progress is always on their mind. With any chronic condition, the role of a care partner is extremely important. When examining individuals who have strong support from either one care partner or from a community, we see that their ability to cope is much better. However, individuals facing the disease’s progression by themselves, without a support system, face much more prominent mental health issues.

How does loneliness manifest itself both mentally and physically in people with Parkinson’s?

I think mentally, loneliness is associated with the stigma of the diagnosis. This means that once diagnosed many people withdrew from their usual activities or social events, falsely presuming that they could never do any of them again or feeling that their symptoms are too embarrassing to be seen in public. Physically, loneliness is associated with inability to fully engage in physical activities that used to be pleasurable or were done in a community of other people due to tremor or other involuntary movements such as woodworking, painting, dance or swimming.

What I usually tell my patients is that just because you received the diagnosis today, it does not mean that you have suddenly changed. You continue to be you. I then invite them to write down a list of five things that are important and fulfilling for them and they would really like to continue doing. Later, throughout their journey with Parkinson’s, through the good times and bad, we adjust our treatment options with the goal of being able to participate in those important five things.

What activities can individuals with Parkinson’s participate in to combat this stigma and feeling of loneliness?

There are studies that show aerobic activity can modify and possibly slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease, so engagement in aerobic activities is extremely beneficial. If such activities oppose the feeling of isolation and loneliness is a big plus. One of these activities is Rock Steady boxing. This is a group exercise for people with Parkinson’s where five to 10 people “fight” the disease through a non-contact boxing-based fitness curriculum. So instead of succumbing to the tightness of the muscles or slowness of movement, it invites the participants to make the big movements that are the exact opposite of disease symptoms. It not only engages people in aerobic activity, but also creates a sense of community and belonging among the participants.

What tips do you have for the average person on how to avoid loneliness this time of year?

I recommend doing something as simple as taking a walk. Change the environment around you and talk to people as you see them. I also recommend signing up to a scheduled group activity. It’s lovely to live in Chapel Hill because there are so many art classes or other activities available in the area. Find something that interests you but still pushes you to discover something new in the process and commit to doing it for a stretch of a time.