Tackle loneliness with a little help from your friends

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AUTHOR: Alexandra Thompson, PGR Student, Department of Psychology

This week (13th-17th June 2022) sees the 6th Loneliness Awareness Week hosted by the Marmalade Trust. This is one of many such campaigns in recent years with the aim of raising awareness and reducing the stigma associated with talking about feeling lonely. Intiatives like the UK’s Campaign to End Loneliness and the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission aim to share research evidence about loneliness and to demonstrate the need for national leadership and guidance to address this issue. This has resulted in the appointment of the very first Ministers for Loneliness and the creation of a cross-governmental Tackling Loneliness Strategy and team.

The problem of loneliness

This increased focus is not without good reason. Experiencing loneliness, also referred to as perceived social isolation, can potentially lead to increased risk of developing health problems. Such issues include cardiovascular disease and stroke (1), dementia and cognitive decline (2), depression and anxiety (3) and chronic health conditions such as diabetes (4). Additionally, chronic loneliness and social isolation carries the same level of health risk as obesity and smoking (5).

Traditionally, older adults are viewed as those in society that are most likely to experience loneliness. Although recent evidence suggests that younger people are equally or more likely to report loneliness (6), loneliness in older adults is still a concern in this age group. In 2018 around 1 million UK residents aged over 50 reported that they were chronically lonely, and this number is expected to increase to more than 2 million by 2025. We also have an ageing population in the UK and worldwide, meaning that the effects of loneliness are likely to be experienced by an increasing number of older adults in the near future. Loneliness therefore poses a significant public health risk and has the potential to place increased strain on health and social care services.

This risk has been compounded by the recent COVID 19 pandemic. Social distancing and successive lockdown measures meant that for many older adults their already limited social contact was further reduced. This was clearly a concern for those already experiencing loneliness, but also meant that a new wave of older adults were at risk of becoming lonely, particularly those in residential care. Since these measures have been reversed the potential for more social contact has increased and the risk has hopefully reduced. However, given that negative effects may have already occurred, it’s important that we continue to focus on re-establishing our social connections and those of older adults to minimise this impact.

As you might expect, romantic social connections, such as being in a relationship or being married, offer some protection against loneliness (7). But what about other types of social links? One social connection which appears to be particularly important to older adults are friendships. Friendships seem to be more beneficial in preventing loneliness than family relationships (8). This may not be that surprising as family relationships have the potential to be based more on obligation than friendships and also at times can be fraught with conflict. It has been shown that (9) increasing the number of friends you have generally reduces loneliness (9). However, recent evidence from our department has shown that simply making more friends might not be the answer (10).

What is the magic number?

We surveyed hundreds of older adults about their levels of loneliness and friendships. Our study (10) demonstrated that although having more friends may indeed stave of loneliness, for older adults, adding more close friendships beyond four friends has no further effect in reducing loneliness. If four is the optimal number, then this means that older adults and interventions aimed at reducing loneliness in this age group can focus on establishing and maintaining this relatively small number of close connections. Many individuals have a support group of around five members (11), so it may be possible that some older adults already have the optimal number of close friendships. For those, individuals, focus is best placed on improving the quality within these relationships or addressing other aspects linked to loneliness such as mobility and functional status (12).

About the Author

Alexandra Thompson is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology, working within the Evolution and Social Interaction Research Group and supervised by Professor Thomas Pollet. You can read more about the work of the research group over in this section of the blog

References

  1. Valtorta, N. K., Kanaan, M., Gilbody, S., & Hanratty, B. (2018). Loneliness, social isolation and risk of cardiovascular disease in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 25(13), 1387–1396. https://doi.org/10.1177/2047487318792696
  2. Wilson, R. S., Krueger, K. R., Arnold, S. E., Schneider, J. A., Kelly, J. F., Barnes, L. L., … Bennett, D. A. (2007). Loneliness and risk of Alzheimer disease. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64(2), 234–240. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpsyc.64.2.234
  3. Beutel, M. E., Klein, E. M., Brähler, E., Reiner, I., Jünger, C., Michal, M., … Tibubos, A. N. (2017). Loneliness in the general population: Prevalence, determinants and relations to mental health. BMC Psychiatry, 17(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-017-1262-x
  4. Brinkhues, S., Dukers-Muijrers, N. H. T. M., Hoebe, C. J. P. A., Van Der Kallen, C. J. H., Dagnelie, P. C., Koster, A., … Schram, M. T. (2017). Socially isolated individuals are more prone to have newly diagnosed and prevalent type 2 diabetes mellitus – The Maastricht study – The M. BMC Public Health, 17(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-017-4948-6
  5. Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227–237. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691614568352
  6. Barreto, M., Victor, C., Hammond, C., Eccles, A., Richins, M. T., & Qualter, P. (2020). Loneliness around the world: Age, gender, and cultural differences in loneliness. Personality and Individual Differences, (January), 110066. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110066
  7. Victor, C. R., & Yang, K. (2012). The Prevalence of Loneliness Among Adults : A Case Study of the United Kingdom The Prevalence of Loneliness Among Adults : A Case Study of the United Kingdom. The Journal of Psychology, 146(1–2), 85–104. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223980.2011.613875
  8. Lee, G. R., & Ishii-Kuntz, M. (1987). Social Interaction, Loneliness, and Emotional Well-Being among the Elderly. Research on Aging, 9(4), 459–482. https://doi.org/10.1177/0164027587094001
  9. Shiovitz-Ezra, S., & Leitsch, S. A. (2010). The role of social relationships in predicting loneliness: The national social life, health, and aging project. Social Work Research, 34(3), 157–167. https://doi.org/10.1093/swr/34.3.157
  10. Thompson, A., & Pollet, T. (In Press). Friendships, loneliness and psychological well-being in older adults: A limit to the benefit of the number of friends. Ageing & Society.
  11. 11. Dunbar, R. I. M., & Spoors, M. (1995). Social networks, support cliques, and kinship. Human Nature, 6(3), 273–290. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02734142
  12. Theeke, L. A. (2009). Predictors of Loneliness in U.S. Adults Over Age Sixty-Five. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 23(5), 387–396. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apnu.2008.11.00

The Big 5 Episode 18: Dr. Faye Horsley “Why do some people engage adaptively with fire while others go on to misuse it?”

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On this smoking hot episode, Dr. Faye Horsley tells us about her work on the human fire relationship. She talks about why people use fire and how we can prevent its misuse. She also tells us about her new book: New Perspectives on Arson and Firesetting: The Human-Fire Relationship.

Show notes:

If you want a copy of Faye’s book, you can buy a print or e-book version here.

If you’d like to know more about Faye’s work, you can follow her on Linked In or check out her Northumbria Staff page.

We’ll be going on summer break after a very successful Season 1 of The Big 5 NU Psych Podcast, but we’ll be back in September with all new students and researchers to tell us about their experience studying psychology at Northumbria University. Please do follow me @BrownGenavee on Twitter to stay updated on Season 2!

Transcript for this episode.

The Big 5 Ep 17 Kristans Nemkovics “I embarked on this journey to find the pillars that are important to succeed in your studies.”

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In this episode, Kristians Nemkovics tells us about studying during the COVID-19 pandemic. Kristians went on a journey to develop new health sleep, study and eating habits. Kristians gives students advice on how to succeed at university.

Show notes:

For more information on developing good study habits check out this advice from the Amercian Psychological Association.

For some tips on improving your sleep hygiene check out this website. If you’re interested in studying sleep we have many excellent sleep researchers in the department. You can read a blog about their work here and find out why you sometimes feel like you’re falling when you go to sleep.

For some tips on how to start an exercise regimen, check out this advice on the Mayo Clinic’s website and here are some free excercise videos from the NHS.

You can find the show transcript here.

The Big 5 Episode 16: Dr. Micheal Smith “I sometimes feel stressed in my day to day life. What can I do about it?”

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On this episode of The Big 5, Dr. Micheal Smith tells us about a simple way to reduce stress: writing about a positive event in our lives. This episode is our second installment in honor of Stress Awareness Month.

Show notes:

Want to read more about Micheal’s research? You can find more about him on his staff page.

Here is another articles on expressive writing where Dr. Smith is featured:

https://hbr.org/2021/07/writing-can-help-us-heal-from-trauma

You can find the show transcript here.

The Big 5 Episode 15: Dr. Mark Wetherell “We know that we all get stressed, but actually understanding how and when it happens is really important”

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On this episode of the Big 5, Professor Mark Wetherell takes us on a freefalling tour de stress through bears, skydiving, multitasking, and helicopter rescue! We discuss how stress enters the body, the benefits and drawbacks of stress, and how worrying about jumping out of a plane is worse than actually jumping out of one. #stressawarenessmonth

Show notes:

To learn more about Mark’s research you can check out his staff page or follow him on Twitter @drminkster.

Find out more about Stress Awareness Month 2022 on this webpage.

You can find the show transcript here.

The Big 5 Episode 14: Dr. Jenny Paterson ” Meghan and Harry being in the media had the power to reduce prejudice”

Can a White Prince and a Biracial Princess change intergroup attitudes?

On this episode of The Big 5, Dr. Jenny Paterson tells us about how Harry and Meghan are changing attitudes about interracial couples! From the royal wedding to baby Archie and Megxit, Jenny takes us through the ways in which the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have reduced prejudice. We also discuss the importance of representation in media. All this in honor of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. #fightracism

Show notes:

For more info about Jenny’s work, check out her staff profile or follow her on Twitter @DrJennyPaterson.

To learn more about the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, you can visit the UN’s dedicated webpage. And support their initiatives with the hashtag #fightracism.

Here’s a transcript of the show.

A plant-enriched diet for a healthy mind (and a longer life!)

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AUTHOR: Dr Philippa Jackson

A study published last month revealed that adopting a diet high in whole grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, vegetables and fish and low in red and processed meat and sugary beverages could lead to an increased lifespan [1]. The authors revealed that the greatest gains in life expectancy could be possible by changing to an optimal diet in your 20’s (10 years), but even changes later in life at the age of 80 might extend life by almost three-and-a-half-years.

When considering ‘optimal ageing’, thoughts may immediately turn to a long life free of chronic illness, especially non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes, and this study suggests that plant-based nutrient-dense foods are fundamental to ageing successfully. Of course, ensuring optimal mental health and brain function across the lifespan is equally important and here nutrition also has an important role to play. Indeed, a recent review found that dietary patterns containing the exact same beneficial food groups identified in the study above had a protective effect with regards to improving measures of cognitive impairment and/or reducing risk of cognitive impairment or dementia [2].

However, you don’t need to wait until older adulthood to feel the benefits of following a healthy diet; data from our lab at Nothumbria University collected over the last two decades has revealed beneficial effects of a wide variety of nutrients (e.g. vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids), herbal extracts (e.g. ginkgo biloba, ginseng, lemon balm) and plant compounds found in everyday products (tea, chocolate, berry fruits) on cognitive function and mood in healthy adults that are observable after the course of anything from a few minutes to a few weeks, depending on the item. In this blog, I’ve talked about some of our more recent findings.

There’s more than just caffeine to your morning coffee ‘hit’

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The alerting effects of coffee are often ascribed to the beverage’s caffeine content. Although not untrue, caffeine is not the only ‘active’ ingredient in coffee; in fact, the coffee bean itself contains a plethora of different compounds that have the potential to either directly affect brain function or work together with caffeine to produce effects. The major group of compounds of interest in coffee are called chlorogenic acids (CGA) and are particularly enriched in the flesh of the coffee fruit itself (coffee berry) and green unroasted beans.

Although roasting the beans diminishes the amount of CGA found in your average cup of coffee they are still present, with one study reporting CGA espresso content in several European countries in the range of 6–188 mg per cup [3]. Two recent studies from our lab investigated the effects of coffee berry extract on mood and cognitive performance and found a consistent pattern of alerting effects that was evident across the entire six-hour testing period, which cannot be attributed to the relatively small amount of caffeine found in the extract (22 mg vs 75 mg in an average cup of coffee) [4, 5].

These results support some of our previous findings, which demonstrated alerting effects of decaffeinated coffee in both younger and older adults [6]. Collectively, these data point to an alerting effect of the non-caffeine components of coffee. As it is these compounds that are also likely to underpin coffee’s beneficial effects on physical health [7], individuals choosing decaffeinated options are still getting a healthful ‘hit’ in the morning too.

The world’s most valuable spice: An unlikely mood enhancer

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Saffron is known throughout the world for its distinctive colour and taste and has been used in culinary dishes across Europe and Asia for millennia. Saffron stigmas are naturally rich in several bioactive compounds and its pain-relieving and sedative properties are recognised by traditional Asian medicine where it is used to treat a range of physical ailments including menstrual disorder, inflammation and depression [8, 9].

The anti-depressant activity of this herb has recently been explored in controlled trials; a meta-analysis of these data revealed that 30 g/d saffron extract for six weeks significantly improved symptoms in patients with major depressive disorder compared to placebo, but also had similar antidepressant efficacy when compared with mainstream antidepressant medications [10].

Our lab investigated whether these mood effects could be seen in otherwise healthy adults who reported subclinical feelings of low mood and anxiety and/or stress, who would not meet a formal diagnosis of depression. Compared to placebo, we found that eight weeks’ supplementation with 30 g/d saffron extract improved depressive symptoms, although no effects were observed for stress or anxiety [11]. Findings such as this are important as they highlight the potential for non-pharmacological plant extracts in supporting mental health. 

A humble herb with an ancient medicinal past

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Few would naturally think of their herb garden as a source of the next generation of dementia preventing products but the aromatic herbs belonging to the mint family such as peppermint, rosemary, lavender, lemon balm and sage are a rich source of phytochemicals with established psychoactive properties relevant to cognitive decline. Of all these culinary herbs, sage has the widest documented use in traditional medicine dating back to the ancient Greeks and is reputed to have cognitive or memory enhancing effects by several medicinal systems [12].

These effects were investigated by our lab using controlled trials and we have demonstrated consistent improvements in cognitive function in healthy adults following single doses of two different species of sage, Salvia officinalis (garden sage) and Salvia lavandulaefolia (Spanish sage)[13, 14]. Concurrent beneficial effects on mood such as increased calmness and alertness [15] and reduced mental fatigue [16] have also been observed.

Our lab also recently demonstrated beneficial effects on working, or short term, memory performance after four weeks’ daily consumption of a treatment combining both these sage species [17], opening up the exciting possibility of exploiting the individual chemical profiles of both species for maximum benefit.

So what should we be eating?

These are just a few examples of some of the interesting effects of different dietary items, some of which are consumed every day. The plants we ingest, in whatever form, are packed with compounds that interact with the chemistry of our bodies and brains that have the potential to help us live healthier, happier, and ultimately longer lives. The best way to achieve this is to incorporate as wide a variety of plants into your diet as you can.

About the Author

Dr Philippa Jackson is an associate professor in the psychology department at northumbria university and associate director of our Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre. The centre sits within our Health and Wellbeing Research Group.

References

  1. Fadnes, L.T., et al., Estimating impact of food choices on life expectancy: A modeling study. PLOS Medicine, 2022. 19(2): p. e1003889.
  2. Boushey, C., et al., USDA Nutrition Evidence Systematic Reviews, in Dietary Patterns and Neurocognitive Health: A Systematic Review. 2020, USDA Nutrition Evidence Systematic Review: Alexandria (VA).
  3. Ludwig, I.A., et al., Variations in caffeine and chlorogenic acid contents of coffees: what are we drinking? Food Funct, 2014. 5(8): p. 1718-26.
  4. Jackson, P.A., et al., A Randomized, Crossover Study of the Acute Cognitive and Cerebral Blood Flow Effects of Phenolic, Nitrate and Botanical Beverages in Young, Healthy Humans. Nutrients, 2020. 12(8): p. 2254.
  5. Jackson, P.A., et al., Acute cognitive performance and mood effects of coffee berry and apple extracts: A randomised, double blind, placebo controlled crossover study in healthy humans. Nutr Neurosci, 2021: p. 1-9.
  6. Haskell-Ramsay, C.F., et al., The Acute Effects of Caffeinated Black Coffee on Cognition and Mood in Healthy Young and Older Adults. Nutrients, 2018. 10: p. 1386.
  7. Tajik, N., et al., The potential effects of chlorogenic acid, the main phenolic components in coffee, on health: a comprehensive review of the literature. Eur J Nutr, 2017. 56(7): p. 2215-2244.
  8. Rios, J.L., et al., An update review of saffron and its active constituents. Phytotherapy Research, 1996. 10(3): p. 189-193.
  9. Akhondzadeh, S., et al., Crocus sativus L. in the treatment of mild to moderate depression: a double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled trial. Phytother Res, 2005. 19(2): p. 148-51.
  10. Hausenblas, H.A., et al., Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) and major depressive disorder: a meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. J Integr Med, 2013. 11(6): p. 377-83.
  11. Jackson, P. A., Forster, J., Khan, J., Pouchieu, C., Dubreuil, S., Gaudout, D., … & Kennedy, D. O. (2021). Effects of saffron extract supplementation on mood, well-being, and response to a psychosocial stressor in healthy adults: A randomized, double-blind, parallel group, clinical trial. Frontiers in nutrition, 365.
  12. Kennedy, D.O. and A.B. Scholey, The psychopharmacology of European herbs with cognition-enhancing properties. Curr Pharm Des, 2006. 12(35): p. 4613-23.
  13. Kennedy, D.O., et al., Monoterpenoid extract of sage (Salvia lavandulaefolia) with cholinesterase inhibiting properties improves cognitive performance and mood in healthy adults. J Psychopharmacol, 2011. 25(8): p. 1088-100.
  14. Kennedy, D.O., et al., Effects of cholinesterase inhibiting sage (Salvia officinalis) on mood, anxiety and performance on a psychological stressor battery. Neuropsychopharmacology, 2006. 31(4): p. 845-852.
  15. Tildesley, N.T., et al., Salvia lavandulaefolia (Spanish sage) enhances memory in healthy young volunteers. Pharmacol Biochem Behav, 2003. 75(3): p. 669-74.
  16. Tildesley, N.T., et al., Positive modulation of mood and cognitive performance following administration of acute doses of Salvia lavandulaefolia essential oil to healthy young volunteers. Physiol Behav, 2005. 83(5): p. 699-709.
  17. Wightman, E.L., et al., The Acute and Chronic Cognitive Effects of a Sage Extract: A Randomized, Placebo Controlled Study in Healthy Humans. Nutrients, 2021. 13(1): p. 218.

The Big 5 Episode 13: Annabelle Noble “[an internship] just gives you some really good employability skills.” (paid internships)

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In this episode, student Annabelle Noble, tells us about what it was like to do a paid internship. We talk about the skills she developed and the final work she produced which is currently influencing research practice at Northumbria University. She also gives some great advice to other students about how to make the most out of their uni experience.

Show notes:

Outputs from Annabelle’s internship:

Best practice guidelines for asking about gender and sexual orientation in research with human participants

YouTube video explaining the importance of having inclusive research practices. (Thanks to our animator @Russponse)

More information about the internship scheme:

Please keep an eye on your Teams and Blackboard Organizations pages.

You can also contact Dr. Liz Sillence, elizabeth.sillence@northumbria.ac.uk.

You can find the transcript for this episode here.

The Big 5 Episode 12: Ansel Lawson “A lot of [trans and non-binary] people said that the North East was like freedom to them.”

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In honor of LGBTQ history month, on this episode Ansel Lawson tells us about their experience as a trans student at Northumbria University and talks about their research on well-being in trans and non-binary people living in the North East, UK.

Show notes:

Trans, non-binary, or gender diverse and looking for support? Check out Gires for a wide range of resources available.

You can find a transcript of the episode here.

The Big 5 Episode 12: Dr. Amy Newman “We found that bisexual and queer people were significantly more likely to have experienced harmful sexual behaviors”

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In honor of LGBTQ history month, on this episode, Dr. Amy Newman tells us about her research on the prevalence of sexual assualt in gender and relationship diverse couples. We also discuss the need for more inclusive laws and sex education. CW: sexual assault, coercive sex, relationship violence.

Show notes:

Looking for support after a sexual assualt or ways to volunteer to support survivors of sexual assault? Check out Galop for LGBTQ+ friendly support communities and chat lines.

To follow Amy’s research, you can check out her staff profile or follow her on Twitter @ameee__

A transcript of the episode can be found here.