Healthspan Happenings: Loneliness and Holiday Health

holiday health


Happy holidays and welcome back to Healthspan Happenings, our weekly rundown of what’s going on in the world of longevity research and the science of aging. This week, we’re talking about holiday health issues like loneliness, what’s puzzling about cognitive health, and how a positive outlook can reduce stress.


If you’re thinking about skipping out on a holiday meal with older family members…


Don’t be a Scrooge. Loneliness causes major health problems and can mostly be avoided through contact with friends and family. Loneliness isn’t necessarily the same as being alone, and people of all ages can experience mild to severe feelings of loneliness throughout their lifespans.

In recent years, public health officials have warned about a rising epidemic of loneliness. Loneliness persists across the adult lifespan, but it’s particularly acute during three age periods: late-20s, mid-50s and late-80s, says a new study from UC San Diego’s Center for Healthy Aging. Researchers found that many subjects who suffered from severe loneliness were not those who we typically identify as at-risk.

Researchers also found an inverse relationship between wisdom and loneliness. They defined wisdom in reference to traits such as compassion and self-reflection. And they discovered that those who possessed these traits tended to be less lonely. Researchers suggest that we should look for ways to encourage empathy to achieve a less lonely society. So zip up your coat, pull down your beanie, and go spend some time with people who are happy to have you around..


If you’re itching to solve the next crossword puzzle you see…


You’re giving your brain an early present. Playing puzzle games like crosswords and Sudoku might not prevent dementia, but they can increase your mental sharpness and give you a leg up in regards to the onset of dementia. In other words, playing these games has been shown to delay dementia-induced cognitive impairment after diagnosis.

Researchers have long debated the “use it or lose it” model of age- and dementia-related cognitive decline. According to this model, mentally engaging activities like puzzles and games have the potential to boost your defenses against dementia. Researchers at the University of Aberdeen didn’t prove or disprove the “use it or lose it” model. However, they did find that puzzle games had the potential to improve mental prowess prior to onset. This higher starting point meant that those who played puzzle games took longer to cognitively decline after being diagnosed with dementia.

Regularly challenging the mind can have significant benefits for cognitive health. So spend some time this holiday season playing Tetris with gifts or memorizing a family recipe. Your brain will thank you!


If the holiday season stresses you out…


Putting a positive spin on things could make it easier. Positive thinking reduces stress—especially if you don’t make much money—says a new study. By finding the diamond in the rough or looking for the silver lining, people of lower socioeconomic standing can actually reduce their anxiety.

However, how much you earn has a significant impact on whether reframing a situation reduces anxiety or not. For those who earn more than $35,000, a positive outlook starts to lose its stress-mitigating effect. Researchers speculate that these results are due in part to people’s feelings of control. Those who make more money often have more control over external factors. They therefore might be better off addressing the situation itself rather than reframing their outlook. Those with smaller incomes often have less power to change their situations. They might find it more possible and practical to change their view on the situation instead.

Are the presents looking scant under the tree this year? Take a moment to be grateful for all of the things that you do have. As our favorite green Christmas thief The Grinch reminds us, the holiday spirit doesn’t come from our wallets and purses—but rather from our hearts and the people around us.