Wisdom May Counter Loneliness, Burnout in Older Adults

Jim Kling

August 16, 2021

Wisdom increases with age, and although this personality trait is regarded as nebulous by many, there is evidence that it has biological and neuropsychiatric underpinnings. It could even hold the key to reducing loneliness and burnout among older people.

Dr Tanya Nguyen

Those were some of the key messages delivered by Tanya T. Nguyen, PhD, of the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, who spoke at a virtual meeting presented by Current Psychiatry and the American Academy of Clinical Psychiatrists.

"To many people, wisdom remains a fuzzy concept that's difficult to operationalize and measure. It's analogous to the concepts of consciousness, emotions, and cognitions, which at one point were considered nonscientific, but today we accept them as biological and scientific entities," Nguyen said during her talk at the meeting presented by MedscapeLive. MedscapeLive and this news organization are owned by the same parent company.

Interest in quantifying and studying wisdom has picked up in recent years, and Nguyen gave a definition with six elements that includes prosocial behaviors such as empathy and compassion, as well as emotional regulation, self-reflection, decisiveness, and social decision-making. She also included a spirituality component, though she conceded that this is controversial.

She noted that there are cultural variations in the definition of wisdom, but it has changed little over time, suggesting that it may be biological rather than cultural in nature, and therefore may have a neuropsychiatric underpinning.

Loss of some or all characteristics of wisdom occurs in some behaviors and disorders, including most markedly in the neurodegenerative disorder frontotemporal dementia (FTD), which is characterized by damage only in the prefrontal cortex and anterior temporal lobes. It usually occurs before age 60, and patients exhibit poor social awareness, impulsivity, antisocial behavior, and a lack of insight and empathy.

This and other lines of evidence have led to the suggestion that wisdom may be governed by processes in the prefrontal cortex and the limbic striatum. The prefrontal cortex controls executive functions such as planning, predicting, and anticipating events, as well as managing emotional reactions and impulses. "Thus, wisdom involves parts of the brain that balance cold, hard analytical reasoning with primitive desires and drives, which ultimately leads to self-regulation, social insight, theory of mind, and empathy," said Nguyen.

Wisdom has long been associated with age, but age is also linked to cognitive decline. A recent discovery that the brain does not stop evolving at older age may help explain this contradiction. Brains develop in a back to front order, so that the prefrontal cortex is the last to mature. As we age, neural activity shifts from the occipital lobes to the prefrontal cortex and its executive decision-making power.

"The brain may recruit higher-order networks to the prefrontal cortex that are associated with wisdom development," said Nguyen. She also pointed out that asymmetry between the left and right hemisphere is reduced with age, as tasks that relied on circuits from one hemisphere or another more often call upon both. "In order to make up for lost synapses and neurons with aging, active older adults use more neuronal networks from both hemispheres to perform the same mental activity," Nguyen said.

Some interventions can improve scores in traits associated with wisdom in older adults, and could be an important contributor to improvements in health and longevity, said Nguyen. Randomized, controlled trials have demonstrated that psychosocial or behavioral interventions can improve elements of wisdom such as prosocial behaviors and emotional regulation, both in people with mental illness and in the general population, with moderate to large effect sizes. But such studies don't prove an effect on overall wisdom.

Nguyen's group tested a manualized intervention called Raise Your Resilience, which attempts to improve wisdom, resilience, and perceived stress through engagement in value-based activities. The intervention achieved positive results in 89 participants in senior housing communities, though the effect sizes were small, possibly because of high baseline resilience. A subanalysis suggested that reduction in loneliness was mediated by an increase in compassion.

"One of the most striking findings from our research on wisdom is this consistent and very strongly negative correlation between wisdom and loneliness," Nguyen said. She highlighted other U.S. nationwide and cross-cultural studies that showed inverse relationships between loneliness and wisdom.

Loneliness is an important topic because it can contribute to burnout and suicide rates.

"Loneliness has a profound effect on how we show up in the workplace, in school, and in our communities. And that leads to anxiety, depression, depersonalization, and emotional fatigue. All are key features of burnout. And together loneliness and burnout have contributed to increased rates of suicide by 30%, and opioid-related deaths almost sixfold since the late 1990s," Nguyen said.

Loneliness also is associated with worse physical health, and it may be linked to wisdom. "Loneliness can be conceptualized as being caused and maintained by objective circumstances, such as physical or social distancing, and by thoughts, behaviors, and feelings surrounding those experiences, including biased perceptions of social relations, and a negative assessment of one's social skills, which then results in a discrepancy between one's desired and perceived social relationships, which then can contribute to social withdrawal," Nguyen said.

Nguyen highlighted the AARP Foundation's Experience Corps program, which recruits older adults to act as mentors and tutors for children in kindergarten through third grade. It involves 15 hours per week over an entire school year, with a focus on child literacy, development, and behavioral management skills. A study revealed a significant impact. "It showed improvements in children's grades and happiness, as well as seniors' mental and physical health," Nguyen said.

Nguyen concluded that wisdom "may be a vaccine against compassion fatigue and burnout that drive today's behavioral epidemics of loneliness, opioid abuse, and suicide. It's a tool for our times. It's nuanced, flexible, pragmatic, compassionate, and it presents a reasonable framework for getting along in the often messy world that we all share."

Implications for Psychiatrists

Henry A. Nasrallah, MD, who organized the conference, suggested that the benefits of wisdom may not be limited to patients. He pointed out that surgeons often retire at age 60 or 65 because of declining physical skills, while psychiatrists continue to practice.

"We develop more wisdom and better skills, and we can practice into our 60s and 70s. I know psychiatrists who practice sometimes into their 80s. It's really a wonderful thing to know that what you do in life develops or enhances the neuroplasticity of certain brain regions. In our case, in psychiatry, it is the brain regions involved in wisdom," commented Nasrallah, who is a professor of psychiatry, neurology, and neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati.

Nguyen has no financial disclosures. Nasrallah has received grants from Abbott, AstraZeneca, Forest, Janssen, Lilly, Pfizer, and Shire, and advises Abbott, AstraZeneca, and Shire.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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