Let’s start with a quick game of word association. When you read the word aging, what are the first thoughts that come to mind? My guess is that most people will tend to think of health related issues: heart disease, dementia, stroke, decreased mobility, etc. But what if all these problems and diseases that we associate with aging were simply symptoms of a larger root cause? This may come as a surprise, but the number one health risk among the elderly is loneliness.
By tackling isolation and loneliness among seniors, we can significantly improve overall health and longevity. While our health is a complex system that relies on maintaining a balance of mind, body, and spirit, loneliness is the single most influential factor when it comes to well-being.
The elderly are especially susceptible to feelings of isolation and loneliness. More than likely, they have experienced the loss of loved ones and have far flung family members. Retirement can also contribute to a loss of purpose and community. The negative consequences of loneliness can be life changing.
Health Problems that Stem from Loneliness:
- Hardening of arteries
- High blood pressure
- Poor quality of sleep
- Decrease in memory and cognitive function
- Early death
- Weak immune system
- Increased risk of cancer and stroke
- Higher levels of cortisol[i]
Still not convinced? One study found that the risk of dementia is cut by 70% among those who remain socially active.[ii] The truth is that humans were designed to be social creatures and the less we interact with others, the more our well-being suffers.
In addition, seniors who are isolated are less likely to regularly take their medication, see their doctor, and mirror the healthy habits of their peers. Essentially, loneliness only can not only cause, but exacerbate existing health problems among the elderly.
How to Fight Loneliness
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix. It will require a concerted effort to participate in activities and seek out social interactions. If you are a caregiver or family member of a senior, you need to recognize the signs and symptoms of loneliness and work with your patient or loved one to address their problem. Some possible solutions include:
- Online courses – Perfect for anyone on a budget or who suffers from limited mobility
- Community living – More and more seniors are moving in together (Imagine a real life Golden Girls) or becoming a part of aging in place communities like Beacon Hill.
- Book Clubs
While the media will continue to bombard you with articles and stories about how to live a long healthy life, the truth is that there is no quick fix or magic pill. The best thing you can do today to improve your health is to make a new friend or reconnect with an old one.
[i] Katharine Gammon, “Why Loneliness Can Be Deadly.” Live Science, 2 March 2012. Web. 26 August 2013.
[ii] Susan Patterson, “Loneliness Similar to Chronic Stress, Leads to Health Complications.” Natural Society, 16 February 2013. Web. 26 August 2013.