5 ways loneliness and social isolation can kill you

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Loneliness and social isolation are common among seniors. As people get older, they’re more likely to live alone and have little social contact. Additionally, more older adults than before do not have children, which means no descendants to visit and provide company. But this social isolation can have severe negative effects on physical and emotional health and longevity.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2010 that 11 million seniors, or 28% of those age 65 or over, were living alone. Living alone doesn’t necessarily correlate with social isolation, but increases the chances. Loss of friends and lack of mobility make many seniors less likely to engage in social interactions. In Canada, surveys showed 20% of seniors did not participate in social activities even monthly. In Japan, a study found social isolation occurred in 31% of seniors living alone and 24% of seniors living with family.

Here are ways that social isolation can endanger seniors’ health.

1. Social isolation is correlated with higher death rates. A 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found social isolation was associated with increased mortality in people age 52 and over. Chronic conditions like lung disease, arthritis, impaired mobility, and depression were associated with social isolation. The authors theorized that “People who live alone or lack social contacts may be at increased risk of death if acute symptoms develop, because there is less of a network of confidantes to prompt medical attention.”

2. Chronic social isolation has health effects as bad as diabetes and lack of exercise. A study by researchers at the University of North Carolina found Feeling lonely can ‘vastly elevate’ a person’s risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer. Among younger people, a lack of strong relationships can increase the risk of inflammation similarly to a lack of exercise. In older people, loneliness is more likely to lead to hypertension than clinical risk factors such as diabetes. A study at the University of California found lonely people’s immune systems were less able to protect against viruses and produce antibodies, leaving the body more vulnerable to infections. Additionally, loneliness raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol and blood pressure, increasing the likelihood of heart attacks, strokes, and cancers.

3. Feeling lonely contributes to mental decline and dementia. According to Dr. John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago neuroscientist and psychologist who has studied social isolation for 30 years, the need for social interaction is built into us as humans, and when the need isn’t met, it can have physical and neurological effects including poor cognitive performance and faster cognitive decline.

4. Loneliness increases the risk of depression. Many studies have shown that feelings of loneliness are associated with symptoms of depression in both middle-aged and older adults. Long-term depression is associated with pessimism about the future, poor health, and suicide. Lonely and depressed people are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors like poor diet, lack of physical activity, and smoking.

5. Loneliness is highly contagious. Studies have found that loneliness spreads from person to person. When one person is lonely, that loneliness is more likely to spread to friends or contacts of the lonely individual. Furthermore, negative social experiences can lead people to avoid those who are lonely, which increases their loneliness.

These findings show loneliness and social isolation are a serious physical and mental health issue among seniors, and people of all ages. Here are some ways to avoid and decrease social isolation among older adults.

1. Volunteerism. Volunteering in the community can foster meaningful social interactions. Also, volunteering is rewarding, leads to feelings of self-worth and value, and enables seniors to use their skills and experiences developed over a lifetime to contribute to society.

2. Education. A survey of studies on elder loneliness found that programs for defeating isolation were most effective if they had were related to education or training. Classes on computers, arts, or health-related topics can contribute to well-being and give seniors a sense of purpose.

3. Exercise. Group exercise and physical activity programs are very effective at combatting loneliness and also have direct physical health benefits. One study found seniors participating in an exercise class reported greater well-being regardless of the type of activity, whether aerobic or lower-impact such as stretching.

4. Get a pet. Owning a pet has demonstrated health benefits, decreases feelings of isolation, and increases well-being. Caring for a pet also provides a sense of purpose. Dogs in particular increase physical activity and social interactions among their owners.

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